DIY Space Program

SI22Sandy Antunes did not react to his threatening midlife crisis by buying a motorcycle or climbing mountains. Instead, the 46-year-old American built his own small, customised satellite.

Picosatellites like his are available as assembly kits at reasonable prices. A complete kit, including launch starts at around $8,500. Spend car money, and you can get a very sophisticated device, orbiting the Earth and communicating via radio.
At these prices, you get a satellite which weighs less than a kilo and can carry around 200g in payload – not much in comparison with a commercial sat, which could be the size of a bus. But in spite of their modest dimensions, picosatellites can carry equipment for precise measurements, such as temperatures in space or solar radiation.

Sandy Antunes’ ambition is quite different, however. His satellite “listens” to the universe, and converts compression waves into sound we can hear. There’s no “real” sound in space, but Sandy is using his picosatellite to give us a unique new perspective on the universe.

Satellites get a lift
The development of picosatellites began in 1999, when two American professors, Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari, wanted to provide their students with practical experience of satellite missions. Back then, only NASA and large commercial companies launched satellites, as aerospace projects are both expensive and difficult. But components were getting smaller and prices lower – thanks  in no small part to mobile telephone technology.
The internal features of a picosatellite are almost the same as those of a smartphone, and their compact size means they can “piggy back” on larger commercial space launches. This saves millions of dollars.

A typical picosat is powered by a small solar cell system, which provides enough juice for the satellite to communicate with a receiver on Earth for up to 16 weeks (solar cells degrade quickly in orbit). Most picosats orbit low enough that they will eventually burn up in the atmosphere – which means they don’t add to the growing space junk problem.

Scientists have been working with picosatellites for the best part of a decade. The most expensive cost $100,000+, and can conduct sophisticated experiments, such as how bacteria are affected by cosmic radiation. But in 2009, US company, Interorbital Systems ( began offering a pico satellite at a price of US$8,000.

Sandy Antunes immediately bought an assembly kit and added extra sensors, which are to measure the ionosphere’s magnetic and electric fields and send sound files back to Earth. Antunes calls his project “Calliope”, and he aims to give ordinary people an impression of the rhythm of space by converting the measurements into sound.
Antunes says science-fiction authors have always described space as a cold, sterile, and dead place. His project intends to make us more conscious about everything that surrounds us.
“Hopefully, it will make us grateful for Earth or make people want to colonise other worlds,” Antunes says.

He is an astrophysicist and programmer with NASA experience, but a scientific background is not necessary for building your own satellite. The trickiest part  – the soldering of the electronic circuits – can be left to professionals, who will customise almost every aspect of the picosatellite for individual customers. Though this extra service comes at a price, of course.

A smaller space race
The amateur picosatellite community continues to grow around the world. A young Korean artist Hojun Song is  building a picosatellite with a light-emitting diode, which is so powerful that it can send Morse signals to Earth. The satellite is controlled by a small computer, which Hojun Song attaches to his body, and it registers, when he holds another human being’s hand. In such cases, the picosatellite will light up and morse small messages like “Who are you?” from the edge of space.

Other picosatellite builders have more practical ambitions, such as taking digital photos of space for personal use or measuring temperatures and pressure for amateur scientific projects.
Several experts, including Bob Twiggs, compare the enterprising environment to the computer revolution, where pioneers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates laid the foundations of the home computers we know today. Sure, the average person has no need for a picosatellite or a presence in orbit today… but then again, that’s exactly what they said about personal computers back in the late 1970s. Order your picosat online now!

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