Listening To A Swarm Of Satellites In Orbit

kicksat

A few months ago, we heard of a Kickstarter with an amazing goal: give everyone with $300 burning a hole in their pocket their very own satellite orbiting Earth. Time passes, the mothership has been launched, and in just a few short hours, over a hundred of these personal femtosatellites will be released into low Earth orbit.

The Kicksat consists of a 3U cubesat that was recently launched aboard the SpaceX CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station. Inside this cubesat are over one hundred satellites called Sprites, loaded up with solar cells, magnetometers, a microcontroller and a radio to communicate with ground stations below. The current mission is a proof of concept, but if everything goes as planned, similar satellites can be deployed into the path of incoming asteroids, or whenever a mission calls for a swarm of small smart devices covering a huge area.

Already the Kicksat mothership has been tracked by a few enterprising amateur radio enthusiasts but the deployment of the Sprites isn’t scheduled until today at 4:00 PM EDT (20:00 GMT). After that, the Sprites will be on their own, spewing out data and the initials of kickstarter backers to most of the population of Earth.

For anyone worrying about these Sprites causing an ablation cascade or a Kessler syndrome, don’t. Orbital decay is a function of surface area and mass, and these extremely lightweight thin rectangles will burn up in the atmosphere in a few week’s time. The lack of radiation hardening on the Sprites won’t be a problem, either. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as they’re orbiting well within our wonderful, protective magnetosphere, and there are digital cameras, tablets, and other much more radiation sensitive electronics that have been working perfectly on the ISS for years now.

You can check out the current location of the orbiting Kicksat mothership on the project website, read the updates on the project blog, or check out our coverage of the Kicksat program from last year’s world maker faire in New York. Relevant videos below.

Oh, and if you have a USB TV tuner, a good antenna, LNA, and some experience with SDR, here’s what you need to listen in.

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Sending Open-Source Satellites to Space

An anonymous reader tipped us about two Argentinian satellites (satellite one, satellite two) that were sent in 2013 to space. What is interesting about them? They are both based on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and the team released the framework & flight computer software for their main platform (named cubesat, GitHub link). Gunter’s space page not only impresses us by showing the quantity of small/amateur satellites sent each month to space, but also lets us know that the hardware source files for CudeBug 1/2 are meant to be released. In the meantime we can only gather that they’re using a Texas Instruments TMS570 running FreeRTOS. Nevertheless, the two different web pages (in spanish and english) offer us a very interesting glimpse of what it takes to send an electronic project to space and how it later behaves.

You may also be interested in checking out ArduSat, a successful kickstarter campaign aimed at sending Arduino experiments in space.

PocketQubes: Even Smaller Than a CubeSat

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Over one hundred CubeSats have been launched by hundreds of organizations and universities from around the globe. These have proven very useful in technology demonstration, Earth imaging, and other applications. There is, however, one large downside to the CubeSat platform. Even though it is designed to hitch a ride on launches of larger satellites, they’re still very expensive to develop and launch – somewhere between $60,000 and $125,000.

PocketQubes are a new design of satellite that bring the cost of personal satellites down to what Universities and amateur radio enthusiasts can actually afford. Instead of spending $125k on a 10cm cube CubeSat, the PocketQube, a 5cm cube, can be launched to a 700 km orbit for about $20,000.

Already, four PocketQubes are scheduled for launch in November to a 700km solar synchronous orbit, including $50SAT, a small radio transceiver put together by some ham guys, and The WREN a very impressive PocketQube with 3-axis reaction wheels and plasma thrusters.

Right now, the PocketQube kickstarter is only for aluminum structures that will become the skeleton of a small, 5cm cube satellite. There’s also the PocketQube Shop that provides a little more background on the project.

Pocket Sized Sattelites for Asteroid Detection

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We’ve seen kicksats before, small pocketable single board satellites designed to orbit Earth. At this year’s Maker Faire, the team behind these kicksats has a new plan: using them to determine the orbits of earth-passing asteroids and hopefully not giving us any forewarning of our imminent extinction.

Instead of simply orbiting Earth, the new plan for these kicksats is to deploy them into the path of an oncoming asteroid such as Apophis so the radio transmissions from each satellite can pinpoint where exactly the asteroid is, something Earthbound optical and radio telescopes struggle with.

Despite the small size, the hardware on each kicksat is pretty impressive; each mini satellite has a solar cell on each side, a low-power MSP430 microcontroller with a radio module, and a few sensors. The system is designed so anyone can pick up the telemetry from these satellites with a small Yagi antenna and an RTL SDR TV tuner dongle.

An impressive bit of kit, but if holding a satellite or asteroid in your hand is more your thing, the same team behind the kicksat put up a whole bunch of 3D models of asteroids and space probes. They’re actually quite impressive when they’re printed out.

[Travis Goodspeed] starts a space agency in Southern Appalachia

travis-goodspeed-space-tracker

His space agency hardware might be in Southern Appalachia, but he can control it from anywhere in the world. That’s right, [Travis Goodspeed] started his own space agency — well kinda. The first piece of hardware operated by the organization is this dish for tracking moving targets in near space.

The main part of the build is a Felcom 82B dish which  was designed to be a satellite link for naval vessels. The image showing the back side of it exposes all of the extras he built into the system. Don’t worry though, a dome goes over the top to keep the weather out without encumbering its operation.He uses an SDR dongle to handle the radio communications. That connects to a BeagleBone which pipes the data to his handheld over the Internet.

It’s amazing to see this type of hobby project. It wasn’t that long ago that you needed an entire room of hardware to communicate with satellites.

An autonomous boat across the Atlantic

While we may be waiting for unmanned drones to deliver a pizza, there’s already an unmanned ship plying the Atlantic on a transoceanic voyage. It’s called Scout, and it’s the product of about two years worth of work by a very close-knit group of friends.

Scout is a 12.5 foot ship constructed out of foam and carbon fiber loaded up with solar panels, electronics, an electric motor and a SPOT satellite tracker. The team has been working on Scout for the last two years now, and this last week the autonomous ship finally set out on its mission: a 3500 mile journey from Rhode Island across the Atlantic to Spain.

Right now, Scout is just over four days into its mission having travelled 90 miles from Rhode Island on its way to Spain. You can follow Scout on its journey on this very cool live tracking site.

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Send an Arduino to the moon for $300

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We’ve seen Kickstarter campaigns to put a single satellite into space and one to launch your own personalized postage-stamp sized satellite into low Earth orbit. This time, though, you can break the bonds of Earth and send your own Arduino compatible satellite on a collision course with the moon. The project is called Pocket Spacecraft, and exactly as its name implies, it allows you to send a small, flat, 8 cm diameter spacecraft to the surface of the moon.

The pocket spacecraft are made of metallized kapton, a very thin membrane stretched inside a loop of wire. On board this paper-thin spacecraft are a pair of solar cells and a bare die MSP430 microcontroller connected to a suite of sensors. Before launch, you can program your tiny space probe with commands to relay data back to Earth, either useful scientific data or a simple tweet.

These pocket spacecraft will be launched from a cubesat – a highly successful line of amateur spacecraft that are usually launched by hitching a ride with larger commercial satellites. To get from low Earth orbit to the moon is much harder than just hitchhiking, so the cubesat mothership comes equipped with either a solar sail or its own engine that electrolysed water into hydrogen and oxygen, the perfect rocket fuel.

Pocket Spacecraft is an amazingly impressive feat; there are literally dozens of amateur-built spacecraft orbiting above our heads right now, but so far none have ventured more than a few hundred miles away from their home planet. Getting to the moon with an amateur spacecraft is an amazing accomplishment, and definitely worthy of the $300 price tag.