When I think of people putting things into orbit, or visiting space, bulky spacesuits and perhaps a gigantic room filled with scientists monitoring an array of screens comes to mind. Things have, however, changed since the 1970s, and though that situation may still exist, smaller entities are now getting into the space race.
One way that private citizens can get into the ‘race is through the CubeQuest satellite challenge. Wesley Faler, and his team based in Tampa, Florida (conveniently located just hours away from the Cape Canaveral launch site) decided to take this route as the “Miles Space Program,” using a hybrid plasma and laser thruster that Faler designed himself.
The proposed satellite, which is roughly the size and shape of a large cereal box, will be lifted into space on the maiden voyage of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the largest rocket ever made. The Miles CubeSat will then will navigate itself into a lunar orbit. After 60 days, enough time to ensure NASA can detect the bot successfully orbiting, the satellite will then break orbit and head close to Mars. Faler is quick to note that they will not crash into Mars, due to contamination issues, but will pursue a long Earth-Mars orbit after the mission is complete.
In order to get there, Faler’s thruster, or rather set of “ConstantQ” thrusters, is capable of a 5000 m/s change in velocity for their proposed satellite, using iodine as a fuel. Though maybe not a challenge for someone used to working with space propulsion equations, I initially thought that Faler had neglected to mention a “per second” or “squared” in that number. The subtle but important difference here is that what is important in his case is not how fast you can change velocity, but how much it changes in total.
According to their calculations, if they are able to achieve a velocity change of 1800m/s, they should be able to orbit an escape as planned. This gives them a theoretical capability of well over double what they will need, hopefully enough to compensate for any hiccups they encounter along their enormous journey.
Though the satellite, of which a mockup is shown in the gallery above, has not yet been launched, NASA is conducting a series of ground tests to see which teams actually make it onto the ship. Amazingly, this team of volunteers received a first place award in the first tournament, edging out many other teams including those from several prestigious universities. In the second tournament, they received a still impressive fifth place, again competing against university teams, and winning needed money for funding.
This made them the only non-university sponsored team to finish as a top finisher (fifth or better) in both contests.
The next tournament is August 2016, where they of course hope to do well and earn more funding, but the real challenge will come in February 2017. This fourth tournament will determine which three satellites will be launched into space to hopefully complete their mission. Be sure to follow them on Twitter for updates.
Of course, Faler isn’t alone on this mission (nearly) to Mars. The Miles team consists of an impressive array of technically talented individuals, including engineers, technologists, software experts, and even an artist that was recently featured here for building a gigantic dinosaur head. Through the team’s efforts, they’ve contributed over 1 million dollars in volunteer hours, and hope to turn them into paid hours through the eventual prize money from reaching their goal.
Faler, according to their site, “guides the team through a decisive yet collaborative manner,” and, of course, provided the small detail of a working thruster design that he developed for many years before the team was formed. Faler literally wears his commitment to software excellence at all times, with tattoos that read “Code to Live” and “Live to Code” on each of his forearms in hexadecimal code.
As for where the name “Miles” comes from, it’s inspired by a Robert Frost poem, which references a very long journey. Given their very long trip (nearly) to Mars, this seems quite appropriate. Perhaps a line from Total Recall would have been a good alternative, though I’m not sure how well “Get your *** to Mars!” in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice would have been received by NASA.