As our space-age technology becomes more innovative to meet the growing demands of corporations and governments becoming more involved in space exploration and utilization, it’s leading to smaller, cheaper, and simpler gadgets and devices that were once only accessible to the biggest and brightest in the industry. Satellites have experienced the most radical degree of change in recent years, with many satellite designs depicting smaller spacecraft that contain just as many or more usable features. With this technology becoming smaller and cheaper, the availability to consumers has rapidly expanded, and is presently available to regular everyday people.
While private satellite launches of significantly smaller spacecraft have already been around for years, this has been brought about by the development of picosatellites – small, lightweight satellites that usually have inch-long dimensions and are crammed with electronic and communicative accessories. While they come in different brands, picosatellites are generally equipped with features like antennas, communicative transmitters, computer-on-a-chip devices, power systems (usually fueled by solar cells), and sensors.
One of the most-widely available brands of picosatellites is the CubeSat, which was one of the first miniature satellites developed. Its dimensions are 10 centimeters each, and are made from commercial off-the-shelf components that are sold in assembly kits. You can purchase your own CubeSat kit for around $7,500, however you must find your own means of launching your craft. This should change soon, as companies like Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic are coming out with new means and resources to provide launches for CubeSats after signing contracts with NASA back in 2015. While finding a launching outlet might not be difficult, the price tag can be as high as $40,000 in some cases.
InterOrbital Systems (IOS) has developed a counterpart of the CubeSat called the TubeSat, which has an edge in price and performance over its predecessor counterpart. TubeSat has longer hexagonal architecture, being about 12 centimeters long and four in diameter. The TubeSat kit includes schematics, main hardware components, and other equipment required for assembly. A TubeSat kit also comes with an offer for using IOS’ launching services to get your craft into space, all for a price that ranges from $7,500-$8,000. Considering how this price also includes the option to launch your satellite, it makes TubeSat a very cost-effective method.
Another option for personal satellite launches is being developed at Arizona State University (ASU), which is called the SunCube. This cube-shaped picosatellite has three-centimeter dimensions and weighs about 1.2 ounces. Like the two aforementioned products, the SunCube contains a variety of equipment like communicative, data collection, and propulsion systems powered by miniature solar panels. The research team also constructed a larger version of the SunCube with dimensions of 3 cm x 3 cm x 9 cm, which weighs about 3.5 ounces that also includes extra space to conduct and store small-scale experiments. SunCube is also made from commercial off-the-shelf parts, making this craft cheap and affordable for public consumers once it hits the market. The SunCube can be sent into the LOE from Earth for $1,000 or to the International Space Station (ISS) for $3,000.
Picosatellites will generally be placed into orbit 90-370 miles above Earth, which is the same range the Hubble Telescope and ISS. This puts these spacecraft in and around the ionosphere, which is the thin part of Earth’s atmosphere that coincides with much of the planet’s magnetic field. Picosatellites are specifically aimed to orbit in this range so they can be shielded from the harmful effects and perils of the sun and outer space. Although safety is nowhere near guaranteed, this range of orbit is as safe as it gets.
An LEO orbit around Earth typically takes 90 minutes for a picosatellite and can make 15 rotations a day at that speed. Picosatellites will typically stay in orbit for 3-16 weeks before they eventually re-enter and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. You can use your own personal satellite for a variety of reasons that include scientific observation, star tracking, pointing them at certain objects or star clusters in space, and Earth surveillance.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense