Attention wannabe supervillains: Putting your own, personal satellite into orbit is not such a far-fetched idea after all. Interorbital Systems, which makes rockets and spacecrafts, created a kit last year that lets almost anyone with a passion for electronics and space build a satellite. The $8,000 kit includes the price of the launch.
The company is now ready to launch its first sub-orbital test flights in California next month.
“$8,000? That’s just the price of a cool midlife crisis,” says Alex “Sandy” Antunes, who bought one of the kits for a project that will launch on one of earliest flights. “You could buy a motorcyle or you could launch a satellite. What would you rather do?”
The hexadecagon-shaped personal satellite, called TubeSat, weighs about 1.65 pounds and is a little larger than a rectangular Kleenex box. TubeSats will be placed in self-decaying orbits 192 miles above the earth’s surface. Once deployed, they can put out enough power to be picked up on the ground by a hand-held amateur radio receiver. After operating for a few months, TubeSat will re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.
“It is a pico satellite that can be a very low cost space-based platform for experimentation or equipment testing,” says Randa Milliron, CEO and founder of Interorbital Systems.
About 20 kits have been sold and 14 more are in the process of being handed over to customers, says Milliron.
Once the bastion of NASA and commercial satellite services, space has now become the final frontier for the do-it-yourselfer next door. Several companies are developing space products that range from orbiting payloads to lunar landers. The burgeoning private space industry has even spawned companies planning space hotels. And last month, SpaceX, a company founded by Tesla and PayPal’s Elon Musk, successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit.
TubeSat is different because it lets and hobbyist engineers and astronomers build the satellite themselves. Each TubeSat kit includes the satellite’s structural components, a printed circuit board, Gerber files (essentially blueprints), electronic components, solar cells, batteries, transceiver, antennas, microcomputer and some programming tools.
“It’s not as easy as building a little car model from a hobby shop, but it is doable with a soldering iron and a little practice,” says Antunes. “A single person in their basement can build this satellite.”
A fully built satellite must be returned to Interorbital Systems, which will launch it into space.
TubeSat could be used for applications such as biological experiments, testing of electronic components in space, or video imaging from space.
It doesn’t always have to be a scientific experiment. Antunes’s project, called ‘Project Calliope,’ will use magnetic, thermal and light sensors to detect information in the ionosphere and transmit the data back to earth in the form of sound. That sound is almost like space music, he says.
“Just like people have taken ambient sound and used it in music, artists can take this and create something out of it.” says Antunes.
Antunes, who got his personal satellite kit a few months ago, says he the equipment for Project Calliope is almost ready but he still has to put together the kit.
“I need a DIY person to make the boards, get the extra electronics, add the instruments and hook everything together,” he says. “The project management takes much longer than the technology.”
Once the TubeSat satellite is ready, Antunes hopes to start testing the equipment for his Project Calliope to ensure the electronics can withstand the rigors of space, including the shaking during launch.
“A lot of off-the-shelf electronics does well in space because you don’t have to worry about about water or weather,” says Antunes. “But it still has to be tested for vacuum, shielded from the sun and the cold.”
And after all, if the launch fails, Antunes isn’t worried. Interorbital Systems has promised him a free second attempt.
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Photo: NASA’s ICESat/ NASA
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Extreme Hobbyists Put Satellites Into Orbit With $8,000 Kits | Gadget Lab