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DIY Space Programs

Citizen-science satellites allow anyone to run experiments in orbit

3 min read
DIY Space Programs
Big and small:  an artist's impression of a how an ArduSat will look in orbit. A fraction the size of a typical satellite, such satellites will permit low-cost limited observations and experiments in space.
Image: NanoSatisfi

In 1957, Arthur Frommer traveled Europe on US $5 a day, and the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. Today, $5 scarcely covers an espresso at a Parisian café, but it could buy 3 hours on a satellite packed with technology that would have seemed like science fiction to Cold War rocketeers.

In August, two small satellites were sent to the International Space Station (ISS) and will be launched into their own orbits in November. At a cost of about $35 to $45 per day of run time, purchasable in blocks of three days or more, students and hobbyists can run experiments with the satellites. These ArduSat spacecraft, from the start-up NanoSatisfi, were developed from an open-source design based on the Arduino microcontroller. Each is a cube 10 centimeters on a side and has a magnetometer, a spectrometer, temperature sensors, a gamma-ray detector, a Geiger counter, and a 1.3-megapixel digital camera.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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