The DIYers Building Their Own Space Programs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Soon, you could build your satellite the way you put together a Lego truck as a kid.
Mads Wilson and his organization, Copenhagen Suborbitals, want to inspire people … by shooting them into space. Wilson and his all-volunteer Danish team want to strap volunteers onto small rockets, propel them beyond the atmosphere — and get them back safely. So far they’ve launched several unmanned test rockets, and they are steadily building up for their manned launch. “We want to show people that you can actually do amazing things with very little,” he says.
And they’re not the only ones.
Copenhagen Suborbitals is part of a worldwide trend of nonprofessionals going to space. Because of technological innovation and lowering costs, startups and companies like SpaceX have in recent years been able to challenge incumbents like NASA and Boeing for the space market. DIYers, open-source enthusiasts, hobbyists and even college and high school teams, however, are now also entering this new space race.
I think DIY projects are going to be the next step in the democratization of space.
Jordi Puig-Suari, professor, Cal Poly State University
An early DIY space project was SkyCube, a crowdfunded CubeSat — a miniaturized satellite in the form of a cube — that launched in 2013 with the hope of sending images and messages from space. It almost worked, only the solar panel deployer failed, recounts Tim DeBenedictis, an app developer who worked on the project. The Libre Space Foundation, a Greek group, recently launched the first fully open-source CubeSat. And small-scale space projects are now being built by students in university and even high school, which might further stimulate their interest in space or STEM occupations.
“I think DIY projects are going to be the next step in the democratization of space,” says Jordi Puig-Suari, professor at Cal Poly State University. He co-invented the CubeSat standard for small satellites, and is an expert in low-cost space system development. This democratization might have implications for business and education, or simply be a source of inspiration.
That leap toward democratization isn’t without challenges.
While it is now possible to crowdfund a satellite, the steep costs are still a major hindrance for hobbyists to get into the field. DeBenedictis, who now does consultancy work on small satellites, explains that “to launch a 1U satellite in a commercial launch, it still costs around $75,000 to $100,000.” (1U is the smallest CubeSat, which measures 10-by-10-by-10 centimeters.) Universities and nonprofits can sometimes send up payloads for free. Regulation can also be tough for these projects — a startup, for example, recently sent up four satellites without the right license, raising questions of how to deal with them.
But the DIY space community is nothing if not resilient. Speaking about the solar panel deployer that failed SkyCube, DeBenedictis points out that much bigger projects have faced similar challenges. The Beagle 2, a 2003 British mission to Mars, failed because of the same problem. “This is just common in space,” says DeBenedictis. “It affects many groups, from ours who built a satellite in a garage to the European Space Agency.” Yet while it failed, SkyCube showed how a crowdfunded project could actually go to space.
And costs, while high, are falling for a number of reasons. Launching rockets has become cheaper. Standards such as the CubeSat have standardized measures for small satellites, which improves efficiency and safety on launches. And consumer electronics built for Earth have been repurposed for space. Copenhagen Suborbitals uses a touchscreen it thinks was salvaged from a Burger King in its mission control, and in its rockets it uses electronics similar to those in photocopiers and smartphones.
The reasons why the DIYers go into space diverge. “We operate under a vision of an outer space open and accessible for all,” says Pierros Papadeas of the Libre Space Foundation. Others just go to space because it is cool. “The question for me is not so much why, but why not?” says Wilson. “For me it’s more about the journey than the end goal.”
One of the biggest areas where these projects might be useful is probably in education. “Actually, one of the greatest spin-offs of the NASA space program is educational,” says DeBenedictis.
Puig-Suari agrees, and students at Cal Poly State University are pursuing space projects, “learning to use all these tools and devices linked to industries like cellphones, computers and the internet of things.” And now, even high school students are sending up satellites, says Puig-Suari. “That is going to be the next level, where normal people can develop their own spacecraft.”
The landscape is very different from 2006, when NASA launched its first CubeSat. But there’s still a long way to go, suggests Puig-Suari: “This is only the beginning.”