11 Ways to Build Your Own Space Program

Science Space

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

Photo: NASA

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.

Photo: NASA

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.


Copenhagen Suborbitals

Photo: Jev Olsen

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

Photo: TimelapseWorkshops.com

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

Silhouette Milkyway
Photo: igisha

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

Photo: igisha

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

BuRocket - hotfire
Photo: Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group

These groups are working on cutting-edge projects to reduce the price of exploration, while opening up accessibility to space for everyone.

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I love exploring harsh geological features in the hunt for strange forms of life. On Earth, Mars, or the moon, the best way would obviously be by motorbike. 

View more articles by Matthew Reyes

Nicole is a former Editorial Intern at Make: She is a long time maker and previously worked for Instructables.com (Penolopy Bulnick). Every day she is inspired by something new and wishes there was more hours in the day to make!

View more articles by Nicole Smith


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