Rent a Satellite and Do Science in Space

Lead designer Joel Spark works next to NanoSatisfi’s vacuum chamber. The chamber simulates the atmosphere in space and allows the team to run tests on the satellite from the Lemnos Labs warehouse. Courtesy Lemnos Labs

The size of a typical satellite ranges from small car to truck. The cost ranges from $500 million to $2 billion. And the weight goes from 1,000 pounds on up to a couple of tons. So these are pretty big devices, and they tend to hang around in space for 10 to 20 years.

When Peter Platzer, a high-energy physicist, looks up at the sky and thinks about these devices, his mind drifts back to the 1960s and the era of mainframe computers. He sees large, expensive machines that perform a limited set of functions for a limited set of customers. But he believes that the technology now exists to change this equation and make a smaller satellite that people can tweak to handle all kinds of tasks.

To back up his vision, Platzer last year started NanoSatisfi. It’s a tiny company operating for the moment out of a warehouse in San Francisco—part of the Lemnos Lab collective—that’s putting together a nano satellite people can rent. The satellite that NanoSatisfi intends to shoot into space is shaped like a cube and weighs a few pounds at the most. It’s packed full of dozens of sensors, including cameras, a Geiger counter, a spectrometer, and a magnetometer, all of which talk to open-source Arduino computer controllers that can be remotely programmed from Earth.

Platzer expects students, hobbyists, and researchers to rush at the chance to create experiments that can run on NanoSatisfi satellites. His team has written software that lets people test their applications on a practice satellite and then upload their programs to the real thing. The company plans to rent time on its satellites for about $250 per week and can have multiple people using the device at the same time. “Each satellite can support about 4,000 customers over a five-month period,” Platzer says.

Through a company called NanoRacks, NanoSatisfi has bought space for a pair of satellites that will go up next year on rockets that are resupplying the International Space Station. All told, NanoSatisfi expects to spend well under $1 million to build its satellites, get them in space, and operate them for two years, at which point the satellites will drift back toward Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

The NanoSatisfi work is getting under way at a time when the U.S.’s aging satellite system, used for things like monitoring the weather, has come in for criticism. “I think small satellites could be a true alternative here,”  Platzer says.

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