'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

Today, the U.S. Air Force and the space programs of India, Russia and Japan all make space available on most of their rocket launches to carry a handful of Cubesats into space. There are also plans to launch Cubesats from the International Space Station, using Japan's robotic arm.

Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is supporting one of the ISS projects.

"The CubeSat 'movement' has really matured over the past two decades," he said.

Launching a Cubesat costs a fraction of the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to launch a telecommunications satellite. But they get little more than the ride. The satellites sit in a tube and, once in orbit, a spring fires them into space. It's not particularly high-tech, but getting into space has always been the biggest hurdle to any would-be satellite builder.

With SkyCube, Kickstarter backers will get to broadcast their own short messages and request pictures of various parts of the world depending on how much they pledge. A dollar gets you one message from space, while $10 will get you 10 messages and two images of an area of your choice. For backers who can afford $10,000 or more, a trip to Cape Canaveral and a day of operation are available.

On a recent afternoon the team was working on SkyCube at TechShop Menlo Park, a workshop popular with geeks and tinkerers that allows access to machinery and electronic test equipment for a monthly fee.

Christopher Phoenix, the project's radio expert, was hunched over two circuit boards trying to get each to communicate with each other. One will be built into SkyCube and the other will be at the ground station. It's just one of the many tasks ahead for the team before a September deadline to deliver a SkyCube to Space X, the Californian company that will launch it on a Falcon 9 rocket in the first half of 2013.

A second Cubesat project, Ardusat, is also based out of Silicon Valley and just closed its Kickstarter funding after raising just over $100,000. Based on an Arduino Nano open-source computer board, the satellite will carry about 25 sensors. Backers will be able to run their own experiments on the satellite.

Ellegood, the space policy analyst, said things could soon get cheaper.

"Now there are multiple projects to develop Cubesat-class rockets that can launch these payloads much more cheaply than can be done on larger rockets," he said.

One, the NASA-sponsored Nano Satellite Launch Challenge, will award a multimillion-dollar prize to the first team to launch two Cubesats into orbit within a week.

"The thinking is that if launch prices come down, the Cubesat industry will expand dramatically."

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