Democratize space, one picosatellite at a time

There was a time when putting an object into low Earth orbit was the absolute pinnacle of human achievement. It was a feat so outrageously expensive and complex that only a world superpower was capable of it, and even then success was not guaranteed. Since the unforgiving physics involved is a constant, and the number of entities that could build space-capable vehicles remained low, this situation remained largely the same for the rest of the 20th century.

Nathaniel Evri

But in the past two decades, the needle has finally started to move. Of course spaceflight is still as cutthroat today as it was when Sputnik first crossed the sky in 1957, but the vast technical improvements that have been made since then mean that space is increasingly becoming a public resource.

Thanks to increased commercial competition, putting a payload into orbit now costs a fraction of what it cost even a decade ago, while at the same time, the general miniaturization of electronic components has dramatically changed what can be accomplished with even a low mass. The end result is launches that carry not just one or two large satellites into orbit, but dozens of small ones at once.

To learn more about this brave new world of space exploration, we invited Nathaniel Evry, Chief Research Officer at Quub, to host last week’s Picosatellites DIY Hack Chat.

Quub is part of a new generation of recently born companies that intend to exploit small, low-cost satellites to offer services that were once the exclusive domain of megacorporations and governments. In particular, they are working on a constellation of microsatellites that will allow independent monitoring of the Earth’s natural resources.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chat began with a rather simple question: What actually qualifies as a micro or pico satellite? It turns out that the ever-demanding NASA has a set of guidelines that broadly divide the overall SmallSat category (spacecraft under 180 kilograms) into the following classes:

  • Mini satellite: 100 – 180 kilograms
  • Microsatellite: 10-100 kilograms
  • Nanosatellite: 1-10kg
  • picosatellite: 0.01-1kg
  • Femtosatellite: 0.001 – 0.01kg

Outside of bulk, there is of course the size and shape of the vessel to consider. Here Nathaniel points out that there are various standards for modular satellite frames, but in general they describe cubic and rectangular layouts that can be packaged and dispensed efficiently. A common theme with these types of SmallSats is that they will deploy into larger, more complex arrangements after deployment, often by extending the solar array “wings” and antennas. Speaking specifically about Quub, Nathaniel says their main platform is officially called the PocketQube 6p, measuring approximately 50mm x 100mm x 200mm.

But it’s not just the size and shape of these satellites that benefit from standardization. In an effort to further reduce costs, they commonly use commercial off-the-shelf components rather than the custom-built radiation hardened hardware that would have been a given for anything headed into orbit in decades past. While the final hardware ends up being a bit high-end, Nathaniel says that all of the prototyping work Quub has done so far has used the kind of hardware you’d find in the average hardware hacker’s toolbox, including Raspberry Pi and RP2040 microcontroller.

As the conversation moved to the internal construction of SmallSats, Nathaniel mentioned that one of their internal design goals is to avoid cables if possible, as they can become a liability during launch due to vibration and high G-force Boards are designed to connect directly to each other whenever possible, and when the use of hardwiring is unavoidable, special high-strength connectors are required. Although in a pinch “lots of epoxy” is also an option.

With so many details on how Quub’s satellites are designed and built, it’s no surprise that some in the chat were curious if the company intends to release some of their work as open source. The answer turns out to be a qualified yes; while their current design still involves some elements they are not ready to share publicly, Quub is in the process of releasing previous generations of their platform under the MIT license.

Quub’s open source SpaceHex development platform

Of course, despite using off-the-shelf components and 3D printed frames, we’re notEnough where your average hackerspace is putting a picosatellite together with what’s in the bottom of the beer. For one thing, the kind of spatially-rated Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers you’d want aboard your vessel to provide position and speed data aren’t exactly the sort of things you can glean from Micro Center. Similarly, while the Applied Ion Systems thrusters that Nathaniel says Quub is using appear to be remarkably DIY-friendly, they still come with price tags in the five-figure range.

You could probably still fly without the niceties of thrusters or onboard navigation. After all, Sputnik did it. But then there’s still the little problem of getting your homebrew bird into space. While SpaceX and other commercial entities have reduced the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit by a few zeros, it’s still an expensive proposition for an individual. But we’re getting there, and it’s extremely exciting. We are now at the point where small startups and universities can make it, and hopefully citizen scientists and hackers shouldn’t be too far behind.

We would like to thank Nathaniel Evry for taking the time to talk about the exciting work going on at Quub and in the SmallSat community as a whole. Hosting a serious discussion about the future of DIY spacecraft is the kind of thing we once could only have dreamed of, so we’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to make it happen. We’ll keep an eye on Quub’s open source efforts and wish them the best of luck as they venture into the dark.

Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers to connect in a fun and casual way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts and transcripts posted on make sure you don’t miss out.

#Democratize #space #picosatellite #time
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