July 14, 2013 at 5:11 AM ET
SAN FRANCISCO — Someday, swarms of satellites the size of a tissue box will be snapping pictures, taking environmental readings and broadcasting messages from orbit — but the entities controlling those satellites won't be governments.
Instead, they'll be hard-core hobbyists and elementary-school students, entrepreneurs and hacktivists. In short, anyone who can afford a few hundred dollars to send something to the final frontier.
The technology for this outer-space revolution already exists: It's a type of satellite known as a CubeSat, which measures just 4 inches (10 centimeters) on a side. The CubeSat phenomenon started out as an educational experiment, but now it's turning into a crowdsourcing, crowdfunding movement of Kickstarter proportions. And not even the sky is the limit.
This year alone, more than two dozen CubeSats are due to go into orbit, piggybacking on commercial and government space launches.
"We had no idea CubeSats would go so far," Jordi Puig-Suari, an engineering professor at Cal Poly who is considered one of the inventors of the CubeSat concept, told NBC News in an email. "We were trying to develop a better system to educate students, and we did succeed at that. ... But we also created a whole new space ecosystem that we could not imagine at the time."
Startup for the Space Age
Part of that ecosystem is taking shape in a squat, gray building at the foot of a highway on-ramp in San Francisco. That's where a company called NanoSatisfi has brought together a small team of aerospace veterans and computer engineers to build CubeSats by hand, amid surroundings that look more like a Web startup's office than a space agency's clean room.
"We take advantage of all the industries on earth, from cellphones to smartphones to UAVs, robotics, all of that," said Peter Platzer, a former research physicist and Wall Street trader who co-founded NanoSatisfi last year.
It all starts with a hobbyist computer called an Arduino. For less than $200, anyone can buy an Arduino — basically a stripped-down motherboard — and start building gadgets like a self-balancing skateboard, a band of LEGO robots, or a flame-throwing pumpkin.
The engineers at NanoSatisfi decided to put those Arduinos to a more serious use: They installed the low-cost computers inside the standard CubeSat frame. NanoSatisfi’s first two satellites, dubbed ArduSats, will hitch a ride in August on a robotic Japanese cargo ship heading for the International Space Station — where they'll be kicked out into space using a spring-loaded launcher.
From Kickstarter to space
The cost of building each ArduSat is close to $200,000, and launch costs amount to another $100,000 or so. That's far less than the price tag for large-scale satellites, which can range from $100 million to more than $1 billion. To get the project launched, Platzer and his partners raised more than $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and supplemented that amount with their own money and more than $1 million in venture-capital funding.
Once the ArduSats are active, NanoSatisfi's clients will be able to conduct their own experiments in space. Each satellite is equipped with 10 sensors — including a Geiger counter, a magnetometer and a camera. One of the satellites will be dedicated to schools. The other will be rented out at the rate of $250 per week, with special deals available for the Kickstarter contributors. The company is developing a library of basic apps for use on the satellites and publishing the apps online so that anyone can tweak the programming.
CubeSats don't use expensive rocket thrusters to control their orbit; instead, they rely on gyro-type reaction wheels and compass-type magnetic devices to keep their orientation steady. They stay in orbit for only a few months before their orbits decay and they burn up in the atmosphere. But the low cost of a CubeSat means it's relatively inexpensive to send up replacements.
NanoSatisfi plans to launch as many as 150 more satellites over the next five years. The first commercial applications will be in the education market. "Our goal is to have 500,000 students in five years having access to a satellite, and really make this a hands-on tool," Platzer said.
ArduSats could also serve as the building blocks for a low-cost weather monitoring network. For example, ski resorts could use fine-scale temperature readings to determine when it makes financial sense to pay for artificial snow generation. Platzer says, based on his Wall Street experience, that such a network could unlock billions of dollars in economic benefits.
Connection to the cosmos
CubeSats' biggest selling point may be their ability to give everyday people a personal connection to the final frontier. That's what Tim DeBenedictis, founder and owner of Southern Stars, is counting on as he launches SkyCube, a satellite system linked to a mobile app platform that will let people send images and short messages from orbit.
"We all know that right now a lot of our communication goes through satellites, but normally we don't think of that," he told NBC News. "We want to have the experience of having a message broadcast from the satellite, and having the satellite let you know."
SkyCube is due to be included in a cargo shipment to the space station in December. It will be shot into orbit with the same launching system used for the ArduSats. DeBenedictis has also raised more than $100,000 through Kickstarter, but also plans to cover costs through sponsorships. Once the satellite is deployed, sponsors will be able to broadcast messages and receive images from space for as little as $1 using the SkyCube mobile app.
"I fully expect this satellite to be revenue generating," DeBenedictis said.
SkyCube also has a built-in answer to the problem of too much space junk. About three months after deployment, the satellite will inflate a 70-foot-wide (21-meter-wide) balloon coated with reflective titanium dioxide powder. The balloon, visible from the ground, should create enough drag to bring the satellite down for planned destruction.
"We call that the grand finale to the mission," DeBenedictis said. "I don't think that's ever been done before with a CubeSat."
Sprites in the satellite
Another innovative CubeSat will be sprung into space during SpaceX's next cargo run to the space station — and this one, KickSat, has a novel twist.
Tucked within the already tiny satellite are 128 cracker-sized computer chips known as "sprites." Each sprite is equipped with solar cells as well as a radio transceiver, microcontroller, gyroscope and magnetometer. As the chips flutter in space, they'll broadcast an identifying signal — for example, the coded initials of a Kickstarter donor.
Why? The idea is to test the potential for monitoring the space environment with swarms of nano-nanosatellites. "We don't have a big science goal in mind," Cornell University doctoral student Zachary Manchester, who initiated the project, told NBC News. "It's just trying to demonstrate that you can build a satellite that works on this scale."
To orbit and beyond
Bob Twiggs, an engineering professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky who worked with Puig-Suari to come up with the CubeSat concept in 1999, says he's now working on a project to launch 2-inch-wide (5-centimeter-wide) "femtosatellites" called PocketQubs. Those should theoretically launch for one-eighth the cost of a CubeSat. If CubeSats are the iPhones of the satellite world, PocketQubs are the iPod Nanos.
"I always said I hoped it'd be like the Apple computer, and I think it's making that kind of change — which is really cool," Twiggs told NBC News.
It may not be long before CubeSats start going beyond Earth orbit: Scientists and engineers are working on schemes to send the nanosatellites to the moon, or to the outer solar system. (A Kickstarter campaign for interplanetary CubeSats is in progress right now.)
"Realistically, in the next couple of years, it's going to be possible to put a sprite into orbit for less than $1,000, so that will bring it within the reach of hobbyists and high-school students for science fairs," Manchester said. "It's the sort of thing I wish I had when I was a kid."
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Alan Boyle is NBC News Digital's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews' stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.