Thanks to Moore’s Law you can build a basic Sputnik-style satellite for as little as $250. Amateur satellite-making will revolutionize the 21st Century space industry much the same way personal computers changed the 21st Century computer industry. The only question is: who will be the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of space?
The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, broadcast a simple, beeping radio signal when it reached orbit in 1957. A group of off-duty electronics engineers and amateur radio operators living in what would become known as Silicon Valley figured they could do the same thing. Oscar, the world’s first amateur satellite, rode a US Air Force rocket into orbit four years later. 50 years later we are about to enter the age of the amateur satellite.
More than 80 amateur satellites have reached orbit since Oscar’s flight. Most of these were designed to give university students experience in space projects before entering the workforce. But that’s changing. The first satellite built by high school students reached orbit in 2013. The first satellite designed and built by grade school students may reach orbit in 2015. (Read our feature articles about TJ3Sat and Mission Possible for more information about these STEM space projects)
How is this possible?
California engineering professors Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari proposed a new way of thinking about educational satellite design in 1999. Traditional research satellites often took a decade to develop. Students only saw a small part of the project before graduating. The professors, in this case more interested in preparing students for careers in the space industry than in creating sophisticated research satellites, wanted a cheap, simple project that students could build and launch quickly.
The CubeSat - a 10 centimeter, 1 kilogram cube - was large enough to contain all of the spacecraft’s systems while being small enough to hitch free rides on rockets launching much larger professional satellites.
Fifteen years later Moore’s Law makes CubeSats even so capable. that professionals develop CubeSats. Silicon Valley startup Planet Labs, for example, has 30 CubeSat-based remote sensing satellites in orbit and plans to deploy more than 100 more within a year.
CubeSats have come a long way from the simple educational tool Twiggs and Puig-Suari first envisioned, but the same technological trends that make traditional CubeSats more powerful also lets simple satellites become much smaller. Twiggs, now at Morehead State University in Kentucky, developed the PocketQub - a satellite only 5 centimeters on a side - to restore the original goal of creating inexpensive educational satellites.
To demonstrate the PocketQub’s potential, Twiggs and a team of radio amateurs created the $50sat (fifty dollar sat) using off the shelf components. Although the parts ended up costing about $250, mass production would bring those costs closer to the $50 goal. But can you build a real satellite for so little? The $50sat, now designated Morehead Oscar-76, reached orbit in 2013. Watch the YouTube video of project member Howie Felice reviewing the project at the PocketQub Workshop.
Another effort to combine Moore’s Law, mass production, and amateur satellites was the KickSat circuit board satellite project. The crowdfunded effort let Cornell University researchers build small satellites on circuit boards the size of a soda cracker. A technical glitch sent the satellites back into Earth’s atmosphere before they could work, but the economics are clear. Most of the $300 donors gave for their personal satellite went to parts - grad students are cheap labor. Mass producing circuit boards would bring the costs down to a few dollars - or even pennies.
What does it mean for amateurs?
The United States has over 130,000 primary and secondary schools, any one of which could build a $250 satellite every year. A bake sale could raise the money for a PocketQub project. So could after-school groups like the Scouts and 4H Clubs. Moving along the education path, the 4,500 universities and colleges in America could build dozens of satellites every year. Introductory aerospace or electrical engineering courses could include simple, Sputnik-level projects while capstone engineering projects could produce more sophisticated satellites. Going beyond the education market, individual makers spend much more than $250 to fuel their hobbies.
How many satellites could American amateurs build each year? 100,000? 200,000? 500,000?
What about Canada? The European Union? India? Japan? Brazil? China?
How do you support a million satellite market?
The traditional space industry - from government space agencies and regulators to commercial launch providers - aren’t ready to answer that question.
Programs like Nasa’s Elana and Esa’s Fly Your Satellite reserve space for educational CubeSats when the space agencies launch one of their big satellites into orbit. The realities of government budgets limits these opportunities to only a few dozen CubeSats each year.
Regulators aren’t ready for this either. Any private operator of remote sensing satellites in the United States must apply for a license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The law is intended to regulate companies like Planet Labs and Digital Globe who sell space-based images of Earth. But what sensor is amateurs most likely to build into their satellites? A camera. Is Noaa ready to process an application from Ms. Gardner’s 6th grade Earth science class and the thousands of other student projects?
Even more complicated than existing regulations are areas that have no regulations. No government agencies or international bodies regulate traffic in low Earth orbit. This hasn’t been an issue given the relatively small number of spacecraft in orbit and the amount of space… in space. But orbital debris is a growing concern for governments and satellite operators. When a rocket releases thousands of amateur satellites at a time, who is responsible for ensuring these CubeSats, PocketQubs, and chipsats don’t smash into bigger spacecraft?
Will the personal satellite revolution match the personal computer revolution?
The amateur satellite market today is at the same stage as the personal computer market in the 1970s. Back then big, enterprise-class computer companies like IBM, Honeywell, and Digital Equipment Corporation had no idea that a consumer market would take the industry by storm. Personal computing belonged to a small group of tinkerers, hobbyists, nerds and hackers - amateurs.
Today’s space industry is much like yesterday’s computing industry: a handful of enterprise-class companies doing business with other big corporations and government agencies. Their corporate cultures and ways of doing business don’t prepare them for dealing with individual amateurs any better than the big computing companies in the early days of personal computers. The one-on-one, relationship-based approach of an enterprise-scale business won’t work at the consumer scale.
Figuring out how to collect, integrate, and deploy tens of thousands of satellites hacked together from a mix of commercial and DIY parts - and do it profitably - requires a much different approach. Today’s commercial launch industry may not be able - or willing - to profit from a million satellite market. The Apple and Microsoft of amateur satellites is out there somewhere. It may be an existing consumer-focused company like Google or Amazon. Or it may be a company that doesn’t exist yet.
The question isn’t whether someone will take up the challenge, but when.