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"

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
4 min read
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

high school somewhere on the globe. The teenagers will also learn to plot Katysat's location, get the satellite to send signals to their counterparts at the other school and perform experiments.

While space is no longer the playground of government agencies, most of the private individuals tinkering with travel to the cosmos are incredibly wealthy. Technology entrepreneur Greg Olsen, for instance, is splurging on a junket to the International Space Station early this fall to the tune of about $20 million. Other deep-pocketed space dabblers include Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen

Space Age Klondike Bar
Twiggs began to tinker with the possibility of creating small, cheap satellites in the mid-1980s when research budgets were at risk. In 1994, while teaching at Weber State University in Utah, Twiggs and others worked on a satellite that "was about the size of a lady's hatbox," he recalled.

A few years later, the idea then emerged that a mother satellite could be used to launch smaller, "pico" satellites. An experimental version, which had daughter satellites about the size of a Klondike bar equipped with solar panels, worked well. Later, Twiggs used a 4-inch-long Beanie Baby box as a design ideal.

The configuration of the CubeSats varies, depending on the tasks the designers hope to accomplish. While some have a footprint of about 4 inches by 12 inches, the typical ones are around 4 inches cubed.

The CubeSats get launched out of the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, designed by Jordi Puig-Suari, a professor at Cal Poly. The spring-loaded P-Pod can carry up to three of the cubes and protects the CubeSats from the primary payload, and vice versa.

Cal Poly's expertise also comes in handy in logistics. Companies such as Eurokot and Kosmotras perform the actual launch, which take place at locations like the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Some of the rockets used in the flights were originally designed for nuclear warheads and launch from silos. Thus, the launches require export licenses and coordination with a variety of engineers and others.

The university charges a fee of $40,000 for a launch and participants must get the satellite to them two months before lift-off. Despite the modest scale, the undertakings aren't always a cinch. The spring launch, for instance, was supposed to take place at the end of this month, but has been postponed because the primary payload on the trip has been delayed.

Although U.S.-based launch companies have begun to express interest, the money is generally below their threshold. "But the Russians are very interested in small projects," Twiggs said.