The promise of space exploration has always been a promise, not from a nation to its citizens, but from the people of this planet to our fellow inhabitants. And even as government-funded space programs move in and out of political favor, the dream stays alive. Here are a few impressive ways that Makers are building their way to outer space right now — and so can you.
Rebooting a Forgotten Satellite
In 2014 a small cadre of international hackers set out to reconnect with a 36-year-old spacecraft that had been abandoned by NASA. Originally launched in 1978, ISEE-3 was built with simple sequence relay integrated circuits to observe the effect of solar activity on Earth’s magnetic field.
After crowdfunding $160,000, the team found the probe’s old operating manuals and retired experts, and developed modern software-defined radio components as they re-learned “Disco-era” satellite command and control protocols. And they built their mission control center in an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, California.
The collaborators managed to listen, command, and control the spacecraft for several weeks — an achievement that impressed even the old dogs at NASA. Then, on July 24, 2014, the aging thruster systems ran out of gas, preventing the team from changing the probe’s course. On September 25, the spacecraft ceased operations, likely due to its reliance on solar power and ever increasing distance from the sun.
Not all hopes were dashed by the antiquated systems, though. At that year’s World Maker Faire, ISEE-3 Project Co-Lead Keith Cowing highlighted the important realization that even after 40 years in deep space, the solar cells and integrated circuits were working almost as well as when they were first launched. This indicates that long-duration exploration of the solar system is possible today with inexpensive, easily accessible electronics.
Cameron Smith’s career as a prehistorian may have him studying the past, but that hasn’t stopped him from looking to the future. In 2008, he decided he wanted to find a way “to fly as high as [he] could from the surface of the Earth with things that [he] could build [himself].” This desire transformed into the goal “to build a functional pressure suit.”
Despite his lack of experience in engineering, he pushed forward with this project and “by applying basic principles of research, design, and a head-banging stubbornness to solve all the basic technical issues, [he] got the suit to work.” He, and the Copenhagen Suborbitals, designed a suit that was “holding pressure, regulating temperature, providing a good flow of breathing gas.”
His perseverance has resulted in the creation of five pressure suits, the most recent one being the Zaphod I. He is hoping to test it out on a high altitude flight using an experimental balloon later this year.
The Real Martian Farmers
Growing crops in Martian-spec regolith is just one aspect of space-farming research. Plant scientists Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl, professors at the University of Florida, have been recreating alien conditions to study how plants adapt and live in space.
As a research assistant in their laboratory, I learned how to manipulate plants in microgravity flying parabolas aboard NASA’s KC-135 “vomit comet,” and grew plants in lower pressures and in different gas compositions, including those found on Mars.
One interesting discovery happened by accident at the University of Guelph’s unique light-and-pressure lab. After a very late night setting up a gas composition experiment, my colleague Jordan Callaham and I discovered that the temperature was right, but the pressure was set too low: to nearly Martian pressure! We threw out the brown, dehydrated plants and restarted the experiment.
The next morning, we were surprised to find the affected plants had green in their leaves and life in the cells. We realized: If a greenhouse on Mars were to break during a dust storm or other incident, quick actions by an enterprising Maker Astronaut could salvage the crops and save the crew.
DIY Project: Stunning Night Sky Time-Lapses
Taking pictures of the night sky is downright tricky, and it’s even more difficult to get a time-lapse of the stars’ movement across the sky. Learn the ideal settings involved with getting the perfect nighttime photos, from aperture to shutter speed to ISO settings, and how to assemble those pictures into a beautiful time-lapse that shows how radiant the night sky really is.
DIY Project: LED Starry Sky
Enjoy the peacefulness and brilliance of a starry night sky right in your own home with this LED setup. Your display can cover just a section of your ceiling, or you can add multiple panels to put on a stellar show. Play around with shapes and colors to construct a completely unique galaxy that you can enjoy day and night.
Even More Space Makers
These groups are working on cutting-edge projects to reduce the price of exploration, while opening up accessibility to space for everyone.
- Made in Space / Future Engineers created the first 3D printer for use on the International Space Station.
- Tethers Unlimited is developing a NASA-funded, microwave-sized “Positrusion Recycler” for recycling of 3D printed parts aboard the ISS.
- Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group is promoting their crowdfunded hybrid rocket, capable of lifting 100lbs of payload to over 435,000 feet, for suborbital use.
- Ultrascope is a robotic telescope that can be built and used worldwide at a price drastically lower than commercial options. For at-home use; can be operated autonomously for NASA research. Part of the Open Space Agency.
- KickSat II: Cornell Ph.D. Zac Manchester created the smallest satellite platform, and used it for the largest-ever single deployment of satellites. A radiation glitch hindered the first attempt; he’s now approved for the second launch.
- SpaceVR.co is developing a 3D printable virtual reality camera rig to bring the overview effect of being in space to anyone with Oculus Rift, Cardboard, or any other VR device.