Affordable personal satellites now available, launch included.

03 August 2009

It is a long standing tradition among the amateur radio community to construct whatever you need to get the job done if you can’t acquire it somehow. In fact, the basic training you need to get a ham license includes some electrical engineering and electronics theory, assuming that you don’t already possess this knowledge. Some hams have even gone so far as to design and construct satellites to facilitate shortwave communication around the planet, helpfully launched by space agencies where they serve as ballast for other orbital insertions. It would seem that negotiating for help from NASA is no longer an obstacle, however – an outfit called Interorbital based out of Mojave, California has announced its TubeSat personal satellite kit. The TubeSat is pretty much what it sounds like – it’s a metal tube that weighs about 0.75 kilograms and can hold about 0.001 cubic meters (if I’m moving the decimal point correctly) of whatever you build into it. Radio transceivers, sensor arrays, computers, cold storage (somehow, the notion of a data haven in low earth orbit appeals to me), experiments – the sky is quite literally the limit. Interestingly, TubeSats will be put into decaying orbits that will cause the satellites to be destroyed upon re-entry a few weeks after launch to keep from adding to the already messy collection of stuff that poses a potential hazard in orbit.

The TubeSat comes with everything you need, including the requisite solar panels and rechargable power cells, a command and control package, mounting hardware, antennae, and a transceiver. Some of the suggested experiments with the TubeSat include space-to-Earth imaging (build your own spy satellite!), orbital environment testing, biological experimentation (Sea Monkeys… in… SPAAAAAAAACCCCCEEEEE!!!!!), and orbital advertising (WTF?!). If you’re feeling really adventurous (and well funded) you can even chain TubeSats together to construct a two, three, or four unit long personal satellite. The TubeSats will be launched 32 at a time from a Neptune 30 launch vehicle at a rate of one launch per month once they get things rolling.

I wonder if anyone’s going to deploy a numbers station in low Earth orbit.

The cost to have your own personal satellite? About $8kus, though that includes the actual launch into orbit. All things considered, that’s not bad.

Launches are set to begin in late 2010.

Something I’m wondering about is exactly how close they are to getting this commercial venture off the ground, so to speak. The Neptune 30 is a very new orbital insertion vehicle as far as I can tell. The description I tracked down says that it was designed to support the small- and micro-satellite communities, which would certainly be a niche market, though I can think of a number of private interests which would have the money, need, and expertise to make repeated use of a disposable rocket designed to deploy miniature satellites.

It seems as if only time will tell. If anyone out there has a line in on the small satellite community I’m interested in interviewing some of the people in it for a future article (as well as satisfying my own curiosity).