'Space nut' looks skyward with Web-funded satellite

A Silicon Valley group is turning to the Internet to fund the launch of a satellite being built in a Silicon Valley workshop

IDG News Service |  Science

Flickr/jurvetson

Ask any Silicon Valley entrepreneur about their startup and they'll usually tell you the sky is the limit. For some, it's not just the limit but the goal. Combining advances in electronics and new sources of funding with the Valley's geeky, do-it-yourself culture, two teams are turning to the Internet to fund satellites and take project supporters along for the ride into space.

A fundraising campaign for one of the satellites, SkyCube, launched on Kickstarter over the weekend with the goal of raising US$82,500. Kickstarter is an online service popular with entrepreneurs and startups for raising money.

The team is led by Tim DeBenedictis, a self-described "space nut" and the man behind the popular Sky Safari smartphone app that provides a guide to the stars. [See DeBenedictis and SkyCube in this YouTube video.]

SkyCube is expected to be in orbit for about three months. During that time, it will take pictures of Earth with three VGA cameras and deliver 120-character messages to smartphones running a SkyCube app. The messages will be collected on Earth and transmitted to the satellite about once a day, where they will be stored in memory and broadcast every 10 seconds. In addition to the app, anyone with a fairly modest amateur radio-type receiver might also be able to pick up the broadcasts directly.

SkyCube was born after DeBenedictis and a friend attended the first Space Shuttle launch in July 2011.

"It was like a religious experience ... but it was also very sad because it was the last one of these missions," he said in an interview. It was then he decided to do something himself to continue the spirit of the program.

When DeBenedictis started researching the idea of launching his own satellite, he soon realized a self-built rocket was beyond his capabilities. But then he came across the Cubesat program.

The program began in 1989 to provide universities with a standard, low-cost method of building a satellite, one that would typically measure just 10 centimeters cubed. It was developed under Dr. Jordi Puig-Suari at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Professor Bob Twiggs at Stanford University.

"In the past, there were only a few select universities in the U.S. that had access to space. The CubeSat standard effectively opened up access to space to virtually anyone who adheres to the standard," said Roland Coelho, who works at Cal Poly's CubeSat program.

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