'Personal satellites' open up space to consumers

A new market: enabling people to build their own satellites, then contract with private space companies to launch them.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Now, it's possible for consumers to launch their own spacecraft into orbit, to conduct video conferencing, scientific experiments, set up rely stations, or even facilitate space-borne burials.

Bloomberg's Ashlee Vance provides details on a new market that is evolving as part of the private space race: personal satellites. It's now becoming possible for people to build their own satellites, then contract with private space companies to launch them.

And don't worry about thousands of new pieces of space junk suddenly popping up -- these DIY satellites will be released into low-earth orbit, from which they will eventually drop back into the atmosphere:

"They will travel in low Earth orbit—140 to 600 miles up, roughly as high as the International Space Station—conducting a variety of experiments. With time they will drift toward earth until they reenter the atmosphere and incinerate into memories."

Vance cites the example of Interorbital Systems, which sells an $8,000 TubeSat kit, "which is literally a satellite in a can." The TubSat kit comes with hardware to "capture videos, send e-mail from space, and conduct experiments around temperature, pressure, and radiation."

One leading proponent of personal satellites, Sandy Antunes, a former NASA employee, built another model of a satellite, called CubeSat, which is a series of motherboards arranged in a cube. Total cost for the project: about $25,000 -- $15,000 on the computing hardware and sensors, along with $10,000 to hitch a ride on an upcoming SpaceX flight. Zac Manchester, a Cornell University student, is offering data-gathering nanosatellites that, he says, can be launched into orbit for a few hundred dollars.

According to Interorbital Systems, each TubeSat kit includes the satellite's structural components, a printed circuit board, electronic components, solar cells, batteries,  transceiver antennas, microcomputer, and required programming tools. "With these components, the builder can construct a satellite that can be received on the ground by a hand-held amateur radio receiver," according to Interorbital. "Simple applications include broadcasting a repeating message from orbit or programming the satellite to function as an orbital amateur radio relay station."

Potential applications of the personal satellite also include:

  • Earth-from-space video imaging
  • Earth magnetic field measurement
  • Satellite orientation detection (horizon sensor, gyros, accelerometers, etc.)
  • Orbital environment measurements (temperature, pressure, radiation, etc.)
  • On-orbit hardware and software component testing (microprocessors, etc.)
  • Tracking migratory animals from orbit
  • Testing satellite stabilization methods
  • Biological experiments
  • On-orbit advertising
  • Space art
  • Space burials

(Illustration: Interorbital Systems.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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