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Taking Space To The Masses

Taking Space To The Masses

It could be the next technological advancement after smart phones...smart satellites.  A San Francisco-based company called NanoSatisfi has developed a mini satellite called the CubeSat.  The tiny devices are just 4 inches per side, but can hold data similar to a regular satellite in space.  And the best part: you don't have to work for NASA or at the International Space Station to control them.  "What we're trying to do is put (satellite technology) in the hands of the average user," says Joel Spark, and engineer with NanoSatisfi.  "So at home you can actually log on to our website and actually control one of these satellites in space." 

The key to controlling these small satellites is a basic computer called Arduino, which is used by hobbyists to control homemade gadgets remotely.  Now, instead of controlling a hovering skateboard or a robot, the user can direct a satellite rotating the Earth.  "You can buy one of these microprocessors for about $20 at home, write code for it using our online interface, and once you're happy with it deploy that code to the satellite in space," says Spark.  As for what you do with that code, there are plenty of possibilities, from scientific to curiosity.  Each satellite is equipped with 10 sensors, including a camera, and scientific meters like a Geiger counter and a magnetometer.  "You can do something as simple as taking a picture of your country as the satellite flies over, or measuring magnetic fields with the magnetometer, or all sorts of things, it's really up to you," says Spark.

NanoSatisfi is launching the first two CubeSats in August.  One will be used exclusively as an educational tool for schools, while the other will be available to rent for $250 a week.  The company then hopes to launch as many as 150 satellites over the next five years, to expand educational use and eventually, commercial use.  The possibility of hundreds of tiny satellites in orbit raises another concern...excess "space junk."  Spark says they've already considered that.  "We're designing them to be cheap enough that they're disposable, so after one or two years in space they naturally fall down and burn up in the upper atmosphere."  Cheap, easy, and disposable...three words that, until now, were never applied to satellites.

 

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