This is the third article in my series about amateur satellite making.
Stuart McAndrew is an Australian IT system administrator whose self-built satellite, the OzQube-1, will join a new wave of ultra-small spacecraft. I spoke with Stuart about the promise PocketQube technology offers to amateur satellite-makers and about his personal space program for Australia.
OzQube-1 is a five centimeters cubed PocketQube satellite. Its mission is to take photos of the Earth - specifically in the Southern Hemisphere. It will transmit those using amateur radio to people on the ground. Anyone around the world can listen to the satellite, but only people in the Southern Hemisphere will get their photo taken. That’s due [partly] to the nature of the attitude control and partly to inspire other people in Australia to get on board with making things in space.
Stuart’s ambitions are not as out-of-this-world as they seem. Moore’s Law has fundamentally changed the satellite business by making electronics smaller, cheaper, more energy efficient, and more powerful. The CubeSat standard took advantage of these trends to let industry and academia cram a fully functioning satellite into a box a little bigger than a softball.
Thirteen years later a new generation of electronics let the first five-centimeter-on-a-side PocketQube, the $50Sat, to reached orbit in 2013. It broadcasted a radio signal continuously before going dark last July. The PocketQube's designer, Dr. Bob Twiggs, was one of the original creators of the CubeSat standard. His goal now, as then, is to lower the cost of building and launching satellites for students as well as for amateur satellite makers like Stuart.
Seeing what they could do through satellites like $50Sat… opened my eyes to what it was capable of. I liked the idea of it being accessible, being potentially made by amateurs. I didn’t study aerospace engineering of anything like that. I’m doing this without a uni degree. Most of it is self-taught.
The $50Sat team had made a lot of information public. I sort of used that as a base for this form factor. I looked at… the whole wealth of information out there which describes the process that other people have used for their CubeSats. The same tricks and techniques can be used for the PocketQube. It’s just a smaller form factor.
Even though Stuart launched his project two years ago from a standing start, and had to learn as he went along, the OzQube is well along the way to being ready for space.
The hardware is probably 80% designed. All the electronics are maybe 80-90% done. Once all the little bugs are sort of ironed out of the prototype version, the flight version will get made.
I am doing everything from scratch. I’m not buying an off-the-shelf chassis or controller or anything like that. The biggest difficulty has been having the time to do it. Being a solo project there is no one else [to do the work]. It’s something that I’ve had to worry about myself.
Stuart expects that he will have spent $5,000 by the time he finishes the design and completes the flight-ready version of OzQube-1. But these are early days for the PocketQube design. Stuart believes that the lower cost its creators envision will happen.
You look at any other electronics the only way to make things affordable is to make lots of them. I think the advent of wearable electronics, mobile phones, all of that [makes] something that small quite capable. I think it’s similar in some ways to the early days of CubeSats. They were seen as toys until people realized that they could work with that form factor. If we do have the ability or the capability to deploy lots of [PocketQubes] into space that can only help to bring costs down.
Building an inexpensive satellite is one thing. An affordable launch is another story entirely. Stuart must spend up to $10,000 to conduct specialized testing, buy insurance, and complete the government paperwork required to send something into orbit.
I think it will come to the point of the hardware is cheap but the process and the approvals required is a lot more involved. That process may become more onerous than making the sat by itself.
Add to that the $30,000 or more rocket companies charge for a ride into space. Small satellites must hitch a ride into orbit with a traditional satellite launch. That is much easier for CubeSats than for PocketQubes. The CubeSat market is so large that almost every rocket launch carries CubeSat deployers. PocketQubes? Not so much.
The launch costs are still very expensive. The PocketQube form factor has a bit of a difficulty because it is new. It’s a chicken and the egg thing, you know? I would like to see more deployers on other launch vehicles. People aren’t going to make deployers for it until you’ve got satellites to put in the deployers. I think I might as well make some eggs and wait for the chickens!
Stuart hopes that OzQube’s on-going crowdfunding campaign will bridge the financial gap between a garden shed project and an operational space mission. Despite those hurdles, though, he encourages others to take on the challenge.
I say go for it! But start a team. The idea for a PocketQube is that it is a simpler platform. But just by the nature of what it is, it is still quite a complex thing. There’s a lot of different subsystems - its like a big satellite scaled down - there are a lot of things to think about. I think having people with varied skill sets is going to speed up the process.
Having an earth observation satellite [like OzQube] built by an amateur is a pretty good achievement. imagine what can be done with enough people to specialize in the different areas. If you can get those kinds of people together you can build something that’s pretty good.
For more about amateur satellite makers, check out my other articles in this series: