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Space: The Final (Maker) Frontier

A look at three relatively low cost routes to getting your electronics project into space.

There was a time — not that very long ago — when if you wanted to get a functional piece of electronics into space it took an obscene amount of money and a few hundred tonnes of volatile rocket fuel. Suffice to say that, unless you were part of a national space programme, a global telecoms company or an evil supervillain, you were probably out of luck.

Thanks to ever smaller and lower cost technologies, coupled with a burning desire to get in on the action and a healthy dose of inventiveness, this is all changing — and at a somewhat rapid pace. This post takes a look at just a few of the options available for getting your project into space.

High altitude balloon

Launch of a Raspberry Pi into near space

Using a weather balloon or similar high altitude balloon will typically get you 20-50km up and into near space. While not the highest final altitude and arguably not the most glamorous route, it is an eminently practical approach and something that can be done on a shoestring budget and by just about anyone. Suitable balloons can be picked up fairly cheaply and helium is easily obtained.

It goes without saying that you need to be mindful of safety considerations such as nearby powerlines and, of course, aviation. An increasingly popular pursuit, organisations such as the UK High Altitude Association provide guidelines, liaise with the authorities and operate launch sites.

But what can you send up on a balloon? Well, a smartphone is a popular choice for simple missions that capture images and track location etc. However a Raspberry Pi makes for an excellent platform for integrating custom electronics and experiments with sensors of your own choice.

Since his post, Dave Akerman has come to be regarded as something of an authority on sending Raspberry Pi into near space via balloon and his blog is well worth a read. He's also created an add-on board, Pi in the Sky, which integrates GPS and a UHF transmitter for telemetry, amongst other things. The board is currently available to buy here.

For an example of a fun mission that will also make use of a PCB laid out using DesignSpark PCB, see Pete Wood's blog post about sending (a toy) Superman into near space!

Sprite satellite

A KickSat Sprite (Source: http://zacinaction.github.io/kicksat)

Sprites are single board satellites 3.5x3.5cm and currently offer the cheapest route to getting your project hundreds of kilometres up, into space proper and orbiting the Earth.

KickSat is perhaps the best known Sprite satellite project and was successfully funded via Kickstarter in 2011, with the aim of providing a larger cubesat launch vehicle which would hitch a ride on a rocket and go on to release over a hundred Sprite sats once in orbit. $300 is all that you had to pledge to get your very own Sprite which would transmit your initials over radio, and for $1,000 you received a development kit that would enable you to program your Sprite.

A couple of years ago a KickSat was carried aboard a cargo resupply mission bound for the International Space Station, and deployed into orbit 335 kilometres above Earth, with its telemetry being received by radio amateurs around the world. However, due to KickSat's microcontroller resetting — most likely due to space radiation — and with it the master clock, deployment of the 104 Sprites did not trigger before KickSat re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up.

While clearly a shame that the Sprites did not accomplish their mission, KickSat can be considered a success in many respects and particularly when you take into account the fact that it was developed by amateurs, funded via Kickstarter and many valuable lessons were learned. In addition to which the response from backers has been overwhelmingly positive and with many indicating that they will back the next mission, KickSat 2.

Those interested in finding out more about KickSat can check out the source code on GitHub — yes, it's an open source design too! — and follow the project blog.

PocketQube satellite

A PocketQube Shop satellite (PocketQube Shop, CC BY-SA 3.0)

At 5cm cubed and a mass of up to 180 grams, the PocketQube standard is a good step up from the Sprite in terms of size and therefore capability. But this obviously comes at a price and $35,000 has been quoted as the cost to put together a satellite from off-the-shelf parts and to launch it into orbit.

Of course, with a little time and the skills necessary to fabricate your own metalwork, and to design and assemble processor and telemetry etc. PCBs, it should be possible to bring the cost down. And what better example of such resourcefulness than the $50SAT which, somewhat confusingly but nevertheless undeniably impressive, is said to have been built for less than $250.

The $50SAT chassis is simply made from sheet steel and the electronics comprise of two 4x4cm circuit boards: one with a PICAXE processor and RFM22B radio — the very same HopeRF module that can be found in many domestic wireless controls etc. and hobbyist IoT projects — and another with power control and monitoring. Launched in late 2013, the sat is still in orbit and transmitting!

Unfortunately, the lion's share of the $35,000 price tag quoted goes on launch costs, which are said to be in the order of $20,000. As such a PocketQube launch will likely be priced out of the range of most individual enthusiasts, but raising the funds should be within the reach of many determined groups, and one can only assume that the cost will come down in time.

If you're interested in finding out more about building a PocketQube on a budget, you should check out Stuart McAndrew's project to build one with a camera payload, OzQube-1.

Andrew Back

Top image: KickSat “mother satellite” and Sprites (source: http://zacinaction.github.io/kicksat/)

Open source (hardware and software!) advocate, Treasurer and Director of the Free and Open Source Silicon Foundation, organiser of Wuthering Bytes technology festival and founder of the Open Source Hardware User Group.

17 Jul 2014, 15:59

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