Over the next year a dozen or so tiny, homemade satellites will be launched into space. They’ll conduct experiments in low earth orbit—about 140 to 600 miles up, roughly as high as the International Space Station. After three months, they’ll drift toward earth and reenter the atmosphere, incinerating into memories.
Sandy Antunes is the champion of these so-called picosatellites, which usually weigh less than 2.2 pounds. He spent about a decade as a NASA programmer and has since become a professor at Capitol College in Laurel, Md., where he teaches courses in satellite operation and instrumentation. Students learn about his adventures building a miniature craft named Project Calliope, as do readers of his two books—DIY Satellite Platforms and Surviving Orbit the DIY Way.
Antunes has booked space on a rocket that is scheduled to carry the less-than-1.5 lb. Calliope into space next year. “The mission I’m doing revolves around sensors to measure the electric and magnetic fields of low earth orbit,” he says. “It is the area called the ionosphere, where the auroras are generated. You have this beautiful glow, but I am going to gather the data as a MIDI sound file so anyone can hear the sounds and rhythm of space.”
The rise of private companies such as SpaceX and Interorbital Systems, which will carry Antunes’s hardware into space, has made satellites affordable for the DIY set. Interorbital Systems, for example, sells an $8,000 TubeSat kit, which, after a bit of assembly, can capture videos, act as a server for sending e-mail from space, and conduct temperature, pressure, and radiation experiments. Interorbital plans to launch satellites made by the University of Sydney, West Point, and the University of São Paulo, among dozens of others.
To create his spacecraft, Antunes bought the kit from Interorbital and then customized the design for his mission. Calliope is a 5-inch-tall tower of circular circuit boards, each spaced apart by a few centimeters and connected by three thin rods. He’s added some electronics, including magnetic and electric field sensors, that convert space into a symphony. He soldered on a few solar cells for power, and it was good to go.
Antunes has spent about $15,000 on the materials. But cost may be just one issue. Stephen Murphey, a mechanical engineer in Phoenix who’s worked on a variety of spacecraft and launch vehicles, warns that the picosatellite game can be frustrating. Even if Antunes has a working satellite, he says, the wait list for sending it to space is months or years. “It’s amazing how long it takes to get stuff done in this industry,” he says.
Regardless of the difficulties, many enthusiasts continue their work, focusing on satellites that let amateur radio operators relay their signals through space repeaters and on projects that use sensors to gather more data about space. A handful of Kickstarter projects are tied to mini-satellites as well. “It’s a growing movement,” says Antunes. “Three years from now, any small college or technical school could do one.”