April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Today a new concept in satellite construction and sales has launched. An online satellite store offering off-the-shelf components for creating your own launchable satellite at a fraction of the cost, PocketQube Shop is the brainchild of founder Tom Walkinshaw.
PocketQubes were originally proposed by Morehead State University professor Robert Twiggs (formerly of Stanford). Twiggs is the creator of the popular Cubesat form factor. PocketQubes are standardized 2-inch cubes which can be stacked to create larger spacecraft.
These tiny structures, which contain all the electronics, are the building blocks of any satellite. Larger satellites such as Cubesats also use off-the-shelf components, which help by reducing failure rates and the hassle of building custom parts. The shop intends to expand their product line over the next few months to include power systems, communication and altitude control hardware.
Walkinshaw and his team used the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise capital for the store. They hit their goal of $5,000 with just hours to spare. They offered contributors a range of rewards from a T-shirt with “Homebrew Satellite Builder” to a 3D printed mock up of a PocketQube, to a tour of the facilities.
The first four PocketQubes were launched into orbit on November 21, 2013, from Russia on a Dnepr-1 rocket . The successful launch and creative Kickstarter rewards helped to seed interest in the next wave of PocketQube teams.
Walkinshaw said, “PocketQubes have huge potential to significantly lower the barriers to students and researchers getting access to Space. We never used to have PC’s in every University/School, but now a classroom without them is unthinkable. Just last month the first high school got their satellite into orbit. Imagine the economic and technological multiplier effect if every University and High School followed in their footsteps. You could do it for less than the cost of a teacher/lecturer for a year.”
Cost may play a factor in PocketQube’s success. Currently, the cost of building and launching a Cubesat is close to that of building a new house. Because the cost of building and launching a PocketQube into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is roughly equal to the cost of a car (approximately $35,000), PocketQubes may appeal to a wider demographic.
So far, university students, ham radio enthusiasts and startup companies have been building PocketQubes. The four currently in orbit are: T-LogoQube, QubeScout-S1, $50Sat, and WREN. T-LogoQube was built by students to measure the Earth’s magnetic field, while QubeScout is testing new sun sensors. $50Sat was built as the world’s cheapest satellite, and WREN contains a camera and tiny pulsed plasma thrusters.
NASA calls these types of satellites nanosats, and the agency sees a big future for them, although that wasn’t always the case.
“Everybody laughed at us,” said Twiggs, laughing. “They said, ‘That’s absolutely the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard of. Nobody’s ever going to do anything with those toys.'” “Four or five years ago,” John Hines—currently the chief technologist of the Engineering Directorate at Ames Research Center—recalled, “people would pass by and look at these things as toys. Now you see [those same people] showing how they are building their own and starting to have their own programs.”
Today, however, NASA and other space agencies are seeing the value of nanosats such as PocketQubes because they offer a low-risk, low-cost, low-visibility platform for innovation. They also offer the ability to use non-traditional launch vehicles not designed for large spacecraft.
“We’re starting to do real science, real technology validation, and risk reduction, and gain flight heritage on new techniques and technologies. It’s still a spacecraft, and it’s still a mission,” said Hines. “It has every element and every aspect of a large spacecraft, just smaller and less expensive and sometimes less complicated. But it has all the pieces, all the elements.”