The CubeSat revolution: You too can build and launch your own satellite payload!
These are exciting times for the tech-minded. The maker movement is in full swing, with inventions such as the 3-D printer making it feasible to undertake projects that were once prohibitively expensive.
And satellite design is no exception.
“With CubeSats and small form-factor satellites, you can literally build a satellite in the basement, and crowdfund or network your way into a launch opportunity, and launch a soda-can-sized satellite up into space to do something cool,” notes Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes, a professor of astronautical engineering at Capitol Technology University.
Antunes knows the topic perhaps better than anyone. He’s written four books on do-it-yourself satellites, and serves as faculty member for Capitol’s student-led CACTUS-1 project. CACTUS-1 was selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and is currently awaiting its official launch date.
Satellite enthusiasts should consider enrolling at a school, like Capitol, that has a strong astronautical engineering program and a demonstrated interest in hands-on satellite projects. That way you won’t be going it alone. And university programs have a good shot at being selected for the CSLI, which is currently the best opportunity to get a payload launched aboard a rocket on a minimal budget.
To be selected, you’ll need to demonstrate to NASA that your proposed mission is useful. Your project will compete with others for available slots in the program.
Don’t want to go the CSLI route? Another avenue is to finance a launch yourself by raising the needed funds. That’s less of a hurdle than it was in the past, thanks to the internet and crowdfunding – and also because launch costs are going down, in a big way.
“If you have $100,000, you can pay any of the launch providers to send up your CubeSat,” Antunes said. “Several organizations have raised funds at that level on Kickstarter. It’s likely that we’ll see more affordable options in the future. There are companies currently working to get the cost down to as little as $10,000 per launch.”
You’ll also need to consider the cost of parts. A recent article in AMSAT Journal – published by the amateur radio community, which has been experimenting with satellites for decades – estimated that a bird can be built for around $2,500. Antunes is more cautious, urging enthusiasts to budget in the cost of experimentation and error.
“For a new team, there’s a learning curve – you’re going to break things and burn through a lot of parts, so the amount will be higher. I would recommend that a program have around $10,000 in parts,” he said.
He also encourages DIY satellite engineers to make sure they are sending something up for a good reason. There are already plenty of satellites in orbit that do little more than transmit a radio bleep, or perhaps send out automated tweets to the internet. Capitol’s Cactus-1 project, he points out, contains payloads with real scientific value: a space debris-capturing project, and an experiment with mobile device-based command and control.
That said, satellite experimentation is a growth area and he expects to see more and more teams out there designing their own projects and seeing them launched.
“NASA is working with three start-up rocket companies to conduct launches that will have lots of CubeSats on them, and plans to eventually have launches that are CubeSat-only. United Launch Alliance, which handles most of the major U.S. launches, has declared they are going to carry 24 CubeSats on every launch that they do,” he said.
“I anticipate that in 2-5 years every major university will have a CubeSat program. The number of launch opportunities is growing, and the technology is becoming cheaper.”