Have you ever dreamed of building a satellite in your garage and launching it into space? The concept might once have seemed far-fetched, but that’s hardly the case today. With the emergence of small form-factor satellites known as CubeSats, satellite projects are now within the capabilities and budgets of university departments and student teams. Meanwhile, more and more opportunities are becoming available for launch.
Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes, associate professor of astronautical engineering at Capitol, wrote the book on DIY satellites – literally. In fact, he’s written four of them. He is also a faculty mentor for Capitol Technology University’s student-led CACTUS-1 project, which was selected by NASA as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and anticipates seeing its payload go into space later this year.
We asked Dr. Antunes to summarize developments in the burgeoning amateur space arena and to discuss the purpose and vision behind his book series.
Many people outside of the field are surprised to hear there is something called “amateur space.” What does this term mean?
“Amateur space” refers to the situation where anyone can launch a satellite – not just state agencies, countries, and major corporations. It’s simultaneously really new and really old. It’s new in the sense that 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.
In another sense, though, amateur space has been going on for a long time. AMSAT has been launching amateur satellites for over 40 years – they started pretty much around the same time that the first commercial satellites were going up. Engineers, in their spare time, would work together and collaborate and fly as secondary payloads.
What launch opportunities are available?
Here at Capitol, we won a competitive bid for a free NASA launch, via the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). We were one of 14 teams that received the award that year. Why? Because we’re an educational non-profit with a mission that they deemed valid. Currently, CSLI is the main channel for no-cost launch opportunities.
On the other hand, if you have $100,000, you can pay any of the launch providers to send up your CubeSat. 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.
Almost every rocket that goes up has some ballast. Say, for example, that a rocket carrying a research satellite can lift 10,000kg. The satellite itself, however, only has to come in under that limit – say the final build ends up at 9,580kg. Some companies, instead of putting water or lead on as ballast, would like to start selling that space, and that in turn leads to reduced costs.
So you see this is as a growth area?
Very much so. 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.
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.
What do these satellites carry?
Most people are sending radio beacons – sometimes jokingly referred to as “beep sats.” Some cubesats will send a tweet from space – that’s really popular now. On our CubeSat, we’re sending up real scientific payloads. The shift has really gone from “can you send something into space” to “what are you going to send?” Are you going to send something useful?
Aside from the launch opportunity, how much does it cost to build a DIY satellite?
The latest edition of AMSAT Journal included an article on building your own CubeSat. Among other things, the article estimated that it requires about $2,500 in parts – if you know what you’re doing. For a new team, of course, 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.
You also have to factor in travel costs – travel to test sites, and maybe to conferences or events where you’ll share the results.
What do you see as the biggest hurdles and challenges involved in building your own satellite?
The hardest thing for an amateur getting involved is the licensing and paperwork. Just finding out what paperwork you have to complete can be a daunting task in itself. It’s easy to build something. To be able to use it legitimately and to comply with the necessary regulations – that’s much harder.
You’ve written four books on amateur space and DIY satellites. What inspired you to begin this series?
I’d just finished up my degree and was working as a freelance science writer. I said to myself, “we’re in an age when any idiot can build a satellite in their basement, and I’m the idiot to prove it!” A startup company, Interorbital Systems, was offering a $10,000 launch opportunity, so I decided to take up the challenge – and write a blog about this adventure. Every week I blogged about my progress and the mistakes I was making. I learned a lot, made plenty of mistakes, and published them all.
Starting in 2012, I got the chance to put all the stuff that had worked into a series of Maker Media books: DIY Satellite Platforms, Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, DIY Instruments for Amateur Space, and DIY Comms and Controls for Amateur Space. The idea was to cover the whole process, from starting your build to operating it once it’s in space.
I tried to focus on basic principles, because I knew the tech would change – as indeed it has. The field has already caught up and surpassed me, and that’s a good thing!