Open Source CubeSats Ease The Pain Of Building Your Own

Space is hard, especially if you haven’t done it before. A growing number of CubeSats are launched by small, inexperienced teams every year, and a number of them fail due to missing some small but critical hardware or software problem. Researchers from the Robotic Exploration Lab (REx) at Carnegie Melon University have learned some of these lessons the hard way and created PyCubed, an open-source hardware and software framework for future CubeSats.

Most satellites, including CubeSats, require the same basic building blocks. These include ADCS (Attitude Determination and Control System), TT&C (telemetry, track, and command), C&DH (command and data handling), and an EPS (electrical power system). Each of these building blocks is integrated into a single PC/104 size PCB. The main microcontroller is an ATSAMD51, also used on a couple of Adafruit dev boards, and runs Circuit Python. Communications are handled by a LoRa radio module, and there is also an unpopulated footprint for a second radio. An LSM9DS1 IMU and an optional GPS handle navigation and attitude determination, and a flash chip and micro SD card provide RAM and data storage. The EPS consists of an energy harvester and battery charger, power monitor, and regular, that can connect to external Li-Ion batteries and solar panels. Two power relays and a series of MOSFETs connected to burn wires are used to deploy the CubeSat and its antennas.

On the PCB there are standardized footprints for up to four unique payloads for the specific missions. The hardware and software are documented on GitHub, including testing and a complete document on all the design decisions and their justifications. The PyCubed was also presented at the 2019 AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites. The platform has already been flight-tested as part of the Kicksat-2 mission, and will also be used in the upcoming V-R3X, Pandasat, and Pycubed-1 projects.

This is not the first open-source CubeSat we’ve seen, and we expect these platforms to become more common. Tracking a CubeSat is a lot less expensive than sending one to space, and can be done for as little as $25.

Sending An ESP32 Into Space

Just two weeks ago, the crew from the International Space Station released a photo of their nine crew members – an odd number considering that the facility only has space to house six astronauts at a time. In fact, the crew had just gathered for a celebratory dinner before three of the astronauts were to return home. The new astronauts joining including Hazza Al Mansouri, the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (who has since returned from his mission), as well as astronaut Jessica Meir and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.

Amidst the excitement over the upcoming 10 (!) spacewalks in the next three months, there’s also been some cool developments in the open source space, with one of the first ESP32s launched into space.

[Nico Maas] from the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) at DLR (German Aerospace Center) worked on an experiment launched by MORABA (Mobile Rocket Base) at DLR. The launch site was at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden, with the mission launching on June 13, 2019 at 4:21 am local time.

The experiment – APEX (Advanced Processors, Encryption, and Security Experiment) was onboard the ATEK / MAPHEUS-8, mission, rising to an altitude of 240km into space and returning back to earth after six minutes of microgravity.

[via AIP]
The goal of the research was to develop an off-the-shelf computer with a more powerful system for high-speed sensors and image acquisition than the Microchip ATmega328P, the current standard. The flight test measured the speed of the system as well as stress testing its ability to handle compute-intensive tests.

The main board included two ESP32s and a Raspberry Pi Zero W, running resinOS / balenaOS, an operating system designed to run parallel Docker containers and optimized for IoT fleet management.

Prior to the experiment, the standard for on-board computers for use in CubeSats was the ATmega/Arduino-based ARDUSAT. Since it was first made available for use in CubeSats in 2013, the performance has become limited, with improvements needed to perform higher throughput data sampling or operations requiring more computational power.

It’s also cool to note that the system, built using a 3D-printed holder, survived the re-entry (reaching up to 20.6g) with hardly a scratch.

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