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Science, Space, Technology

Out of This World! The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Satellite

Money

What would you do with US$10,000? (That's about £6,000) ... Build your own satellite perhaps?

What could you do with $10,000?

Take a trip around the world? Refit the kitchen or replace the ageing car? Perhaps you would invest it in stocks and shares?

But what would you say to building and launching your very own satellite? Forget paying to have a star named after you: Technology is now smaller and cheaper than ever before, so building your very own ‘Sputnik’ is a very real possibility. Utilising the kind of gizmos normally found in a mobile phone, amateurs can buy ‘DIY satellite kits’ and build their very planetary orbiter. These ‘nano-satellites’ are no bigger than a bottle of coke and weigh less than a bag of potatoes – and nice space agencies will let you ‘hitch a ride’ on the next rocket launch for next to nothing!

Amateurs and professionals alike are flocking to get a piece of the action: Ever fancy starting your own satellite TV station? What about monitoring weather patterns or having your personal Hubble Space Telescope?

Read on to find out the steps to making your very own ‘CubeSat’…

How can I have my own Satellite?

It’s a little known fact that since the 1960s, amateurs have been launching satellites into space. Eager radio enthusiasts have been doing ad-hoc space missions, buying, begging and borrowing military rockets to launch their projects into orbit. Over the past fifty years, TV companies and governments have busied themselves launching increasingly large and complex satellites to meet the population’s ever growing need to stay connected. Without huge commercial budgets, the amateur community have continued to fuel their fascination for space by coming up with ways of doing satellites ‘on the cheap’.

Frustrated with the complexities of getting craft into space, clever folk at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University wanted a way to make it simplify the whole process. They developed a ludicrously simple idea for wannabe satellite builders: The CubeSat.

NASA PhoneSat

Compared to a conventional satellite, CubeSats are tiny!

A CubeSat is an exact 10 cm cube, and must weigh no more than 1 kg – A far cry from the car-sized commercial satellites.

So Build me a CubeSat Satellite!

So you’ve decided to make your own satellite, now let’s do some shopping! Here’s the shopping list of everything you’ll need to build a CubeSat:

1. A Frame, a computer Motherboard, and some basic electronic kit

First on your shopping list is to get yourself going with a basic CubeSat kit. It comes like a Meccano kit; all the basic stuff is included and it needs to be assembled to fit snugly inside the 10 x 10 cm metal frame.

A basic CubeSat kit. Source: SequoiaSpace.com

Remember to wire all the electronics into the motherboard. Oh, and you’re going to need to be friendly with someone who can do some computer programming…

2. A battery and some solar panels

Your CubeSat won’t do very much without some power. Batteries are a good idea but they won’t last forever – so putting some solar panels on it are a good idea (there’s plenty of sunlight in space)!

3. A Radio transceiver and Antennae

Want to be able to send and receive messages to your satellite? It’s going to be hard to see your gorgeous pictures of the Universe without one of these.

4. Other stuff: Cameras, etc

What do you want your satellite to do exactly? If you want it to take pictures, then you’ll need a camera. If you have other things in mind, then just make sure you’ve shoved it into your little cube and plugged it in.

Better than a webcam...

Lift Off?

Ok, so putting together your own CubeSat is going to take time and some skill – I don’t think many of us could slap one together in on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You’re going to need knowledge of programming, electronics, radio communications and physics. That said, if you’re a hobbyist and you don’t fancy kit cars or model trains, there’s plenty of links on how to get started at the bottom of the page.

If all that sounds like too much hard work, click here for a printable life-size paper cutout CubeSat!maybe it would look good on the office desk?

ICESat Launch

"Room for one more?" Most space agencies will let CubeSats on board. If you ask NASA nicely, they might even do it for free...

Ways to get involved in CubeSat Projects

At present, CubeSat building is still pretty expensive; most CubeSat projects end up costing more than US$10,000 (about £6,000) – and they don’t always work! The practicalities of getting your CubeSat aboard an actual rocket also need to be negotiated with an commercial or government satellite launch company; although this expense is often pretty nominal owing to the CubeSat’s tiny size and weight.

By far the easiest and cheapest way to get involved in a CubeSat project is to join a local group. Check out to see if there are any opportunities at a University in your area or find a local AMSAT group (Amateur Radio Satellite Corporation) and join up (see below for links).

If you’re already into the ham radio scene, then perhaps you can lend a hand with tracking CubeSats already in orbit? AMSAT experiment with their satellites to send and receive radio messages around the world via space.

Stargazers: Watch This Space!

The CubeSat community is ‘open-source, so like free online encyclopaedia wikipedia – all knowledge and technology is freely shared. So as this body of knowledge in the CubeSat community grows and costs fall, there are going to be more and more opportunities for us members of the public and citizen scientists to get involved…

To keep in touch with other science-based projects that you can get involved in, check out the website Science4Citizens.net

Update: Unfortunately, the NASA Taurus XL rocket launch on 4th March failed to reach orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Along with the destruction of climate investigating satellite, Glory were three CubeSats… Read More
.

Links:

The Official CubeSat Site with upcoming launch dates: Cubesat.org

List of CubeSats (presently incomplete) at: Wikipedia

Find a whole host of other space related projects and competitions you can get involved in at: http://spacehack.org/

Find out more about getting involved in Amateur Radio Satellites at the official AMSAT website

Read more about the extraordinary history of amateur radio satellites at www.SpaceToday.com

A list of Online Shops for CubeSat components.

Selected Amateur Radio Satellite groups:

AMSAT-UK: http://www.uk.amsat.org/

The Southgate Amateur Radio Club: http://www.southgatearc.org/

AMSAT – South Africa: http://www.amsatsa.org.za/

AMSAT – Australia: http://www.amsat-vk.org/

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Out of This World! The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Satellite

  1. Great post Stu! Fancy building one?

    Posted by John Morse-Brown | March 3, 2011, 7:06 pm
  2. Hi Wish to find out can the Cube SAT of a thing Help Me Lunch my own Satelite TV Channel ? If yes. Can you connect me up with any training program that can help impact the required Knowledge? Thanks

    Posted by Edward Muma | July 30, 2011, 10:33 am

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