DIY satellites reinvent the space race

Building spacecraft isn't just for NASA anymore. Do-it-yourself CubeSats are helping students conquer space, 4 inches at a time. Photos: Tiny "CubeSats"

Soon, Romania, Colombia and a high school in San Jose, Calif., will join the space race.

An ambitious program called CubeSat, developed at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, is giving students and companies the opportunity to build and launch functional satellites into low Earth orbit, or about 240 to 360 miles above the planet.

The satellites are tiny--they weigh a kilogram and generally measure about 10 centimeters on each side--but they cost far less than conventional commercial satellites. A CubeSat unit costs roughly $40,000 to build and only $40,000 to launch. As part of the program, Cal Poly takes care of the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles.

Satellite photos

By contrast, a conventional satellite can run between $150 million and $250 million to build and $100 million to launch.

"I kind of look at this as the Apple II. The ordinary person can get something into space," said Bob Twiggs, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford and one of the principals behind CubeSat. "We don't know what the ultimate use is, but look what happened to the Internet."

In the early 1980s, the Apple II was one of the very first personal computers to catch on with the general public. In the 1990s, the Internet exploded into mainstream use after years of being a quiet academic byway. Can the same happen with satellites?

While the CubeSats can't compete with commercial satellites in terms of performance, they're more than just orbital knickknacks. Stanford and a company called QuakeFinder launched a triple CubeSat in 2003 that monitored seismic energy emitting from faults, which can be a precursor to earthquakes. Every time the QuakeSat flew over the San Andreas Fault, low levels of energy were detected, Twiggs said. A second-generation version is being designed for a 2008 launch.

A University of Tokyo CubeSat propelled by solar panels, meanwhile, sends down compressed digital photos taken with a low-resolution camera. So far, nine have been launched and three more will go up in the spring.

"I didn't think they could do it, but I get a digital photo every week," Twiggs said.

The program is giving students at different schools a hands-on opportunity to work on spacecraft, an avenue of research that otherwise would be largely out of reach. A group of Romanian students at the University of Bucharest and sponsored by the Romanian Space Agency are currently crafting three different CubeSats, while Twiggs is advising students at Colombia's Universidad Sergio Arboleda on how to put one together.

"They've never built one in Romania before, the same with Colombia," he said. "We're creating a whole new generation of students really genuinely interested in space."

Meanwhile, a group of students at Independence High School in San Jose, Calif., are working with one of Twiggs' graduate students and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin on the KatySat program. Once built, Katysat (which stands for "kids are never too young for satellites") is expected to exchange messages between Independence and another

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