Tired of drones? Build a satellite

PocketQube will sell you the parts that you need to build your own nanosatellite.

pocket lead image

An amateur-radio satellite called $50SAT/MO-76 marked its 15-month earth-orbiting anniversary last month.

Now, you might not think that's a particularly big deal. Satellites stay up longer than that (or don't) all the time.

Well, the big deal about $50SAT is that it's a self-built kit. And it's still up there—although possibly only just. Unfortunately, it is now experiencing some premature battery deteriorating caused orbit decay, says Michael Kirkart, a member of the team that built the bird.

But the point is that the satellite made it. Not only did it actually take off in 2013, but it has orbited the earth 15 times a day over that 15-month period.

Four satellites of the same platform are also currently in orbit.

Democratizing space

Glasgow, Scotland-based PocketQube, the platform on which $50SAT/MO-76 was built, is the latest satellite standard accessible to individuals. A beginning-to-end PocketQube project costs about $35,000, according to the developers.

The key to PocketQube's low price, in comparison to other miniaturized satellites—such as the similarly home-brew, one-liter-volume CubeSat, which costs six figures—is the size. At 5 centimeters, PocketQube is small enough to fit in your pocket.

Size is one of several factors that keep costs down. PocketQube also uses off-the-shelf commercial components to reduce costs. Parts are developed for PocketQube by third parties, and then sold in a communal-style marketplace.

Payloads

What can you do with it? Can you buzz public buildings and otherwise annoy officials with it, like you can with a drone, you may ask? Well, the answer is no. It's generally more altruistic than that.

Morehead State University Professor Robert Twiggs, who invented the more expensive and larger CubeSat nanosat, says that space environment monitoring and sensors can be implemented, for example. A bit dull, maybe.

But Australian space enthusiast Stuart McAndrew is building one to host a camera, and one owner in Latin America is making a PocketQube that, when launched, will shine an LED light visible from earth.

The $50SAT/MO-76 satellite operates a radio beacon that amateur radio fans can track and connect with.

New car price

The PocketQube kit, which includes most of the parts for the actual satellite, comes in at around $6,000. Miscellaneous bits and pieces, like a solar panel, roughly double that.

Piggy-back launch services from GAUSS, or Group of Astrodynamics for the Use of Space Systems, in Italy contribute to a total do-it-yourself cost of around $35,000.

It's not easy to find launch brokers, by the way.

The 2015 BMW 3-Series automobile starts around that price, for comparison.

Components

The $6,000 kit that you receive consists of the aluminum structure that accommodates a PCB stack—just like a drone, in fact.

A transceiver and a lab development board for testing, without connectors and jumpers, ships with it, as does a TI MSP430 microcontroller on-board computer, breakout board, and a smart transportation case.

Shipping time is 12 to 16 weeks.

And the next sun-synchronous GAUSS launch, suitable for PocketQubes, according to its website, will be in 2016.

So get saving, I reckon.

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