Do-It-Yourself Satellites: Put Yours In Orbit For $1,000 And Up

PHOTO: This undated handout image shows the real SkyCube model with the actual size of the satellite compared to an iPhone.PlayCourtesy of SkyCube
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What could you do with your own, do-it-yourself satellite? Such things now exist—and at prices as low as $8,000, including the blast-off into space.

You could use it, say experts, to track migratory animals--whales, perhaps, or elk. You could have it tweet you now and then, just to say hello. It could send you pictures of a developing hurricane or take readings of changes in the earth's magnetic field.

Imagine that you're at a cocktail party. "My goodness, look at the time," you say, glancing at your watch. "Sorry to go, but I've got to take a reading of the earth's magnetic field with my satellite."

That alone could be worth $8,000.

According to a story in Businessweek, about a dozen homemade satellites will be launched into space in the next year.

Former NASA astronomer Sandy Antunes, now a professor of engineering at Maryland's Capitol College, paid $8,000 for a TubeSat Personal Satellite—a kit made by Interorbital Systems of Mojave, California. The price includes the satellite's transportation into orbit aboard an Interorbital-owned rocket.

Once Antunes' satellite is up, he says he intends to use it for an art project called Calliope. "We think of space as being sterile," he says, "But in fact it's an active environment." All around his TubeSat, he says, will be pulsations of electromagnetic energy, random solar events, changes in temperature as day and night trade places. His TubeSat will record these fluctuations, which Antunes says he will later convert into sounds--literally the music of the spheres.

San Franciscan app-developer Tim DeBenedictis, whose software includes SkySafari, which helps astronomers "find stuff in the sky," is customizing a different kit satellite called CubeSat, made by Pumpkin, Inc. Pumpkin has sold more than 300 of these, making founder Andrew Kalman what Forbes magazine calls the closest thing the space industry has produced to a Henry Ford—somebody determined to put a little satellite in every garage.

The 2-pound, 4-inch tall CubeSat sells for $10,000, excluding cost of launch.

DeBenedictis' modification, named SkyCube, has cost $96,000 so far, with money coming from sponsors via funding website Kickstarter. SkyCube, he says, will do three things in orbit: It will broadcast sponsors' messages (120 bytes each) across the Earth; it will take pictures of the Earth and send them to sponsors' mobile phones; and it will deploy a 10-foot diameter mylar balloon, carried (deflated) within the SkyCube's body. This balloon, when inflated, will reflect light, making the satellite easier to see.

"You'll be able to see it with your own unaided eyeballs as it sails across the sky at twilight," says DeBenedictis. "You'll be able to see it moving. You can say to yourself, 'I put something up there.'"

DIY satellites typically hitch a ride on rockets carrying far more serious payloads. SkyCube, for example, will go up in 2013 aboard a rocket owned by commercial space company Space X. DeBenedictis suspects that the launch's primary payload will be a spy satellite. "We're secondary," he says. He already has put down a deposit of $50,000 on the flight, which ultimately will cost him, he says, $125,000.

Zac Manchester, a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell, says there's another way to get into orbit: a NASA program called ELaNA that offers lifts to DIY projects from universities. Manchester's project, called KickSat, aims to put 1,000 tiny satellites into orbit all at once. Called Sprites, each is no bigger than two postage stamps side by side. "Think of it as a shrunken Sputnik," he says.

"100 of our Sprites can fit inside one CubeSat," he explains. "If it costs $100,000 to put a CubeSat into orbit, then that's just $1,000 per Sprite." At that price, a hobbyists can afford to buy one, he says. A high school class can afford one. "It's really broadening satellites to a whole new audience."

Each Sprite has solar cells, a radio transceiver, sensors, and a computer memory. Each will be able to transmit a short message--its' owner's initials, for example. Future Sprites could include sensors and cameras.

Like most other do-it-yourself satellites, the Sprites will occupy so low an orbit that after about two weeks, they will fall back into the atmosphere from inertia and be incinerated, leaving no trace of space debris behind.

They're not just cute. They're clean.