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SkyCube: The Nano-Satellite

SkyCube: The Nano-Satellite

Project engineer Chris Phoenix holds one of SkyCube's cameras.

Digital technologies shrink our tools even as they extend our reach. No better example of this could be found than the upcoming launch of a tiny satellite called SkyCube. Poised to go into space from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia in early 2014, SkyCube is being described as a ‘nano-satellite,’ a miniature space platform no more than ten centimeters to the side. Over a hundred of these ‘CubeSats’ have been launched since the early 2000’s, championed by universities for offering a cheap ride for student projects into space.

The assembled SkyCube will measure just 10 centimeters to the side. Its solar sails are folded against the body and will be deployed once SkyCube is in orbit.

CubeSats are small enough that they ‘piggyback’ into orbit aboard rockets carrying more substantial payloads, and they’re suddenly opening up space to organizations far smaller than the governments that once controlled every aspect of the space business. SkyCube grows out of the thinking of Tim De Benedictis, who had already created a successful company called Southern Stars that made its money by selling apps for smartphones. Southern Stars was all about space anyway, its SkySafari app being built around star charts and their mobile use.

With his fascination for space growing after watching the final Space Shuttle launch in July of 2011, DeBenedictis found the conceptual pieces for what would become SkyCube falling into place. For one thing, because those CubeSats were made from off-the-shelf components, they could be produced for less than $100,000. For another, smartphones were exploding in popularity, offering a new way for a public that had seemingly lost interest in space to reconnect -- A SkyCube app called Satellite Safari is a big part of the mission. The final piece of the puzzle was the realization that ‘crowdsourcing’ sites like KickStarter could raise money for innovative projects. That meant even a small company could hope to pay for a satellite of its own.

SkyCube's orbit will carry it over nearly every inhabited part of the world. This map shows the locations of the MC3 and Saber Astronautics ground stations that will be used by SkyCube.

The KickStarter campaign went beyond the hopes of its creators, surpassing first its $82,500 goal and then a ‘stretch’ goal of $110,000, with over 2700 backers pledging everything from $1 up to over $6000 each. As currently envisioned, the entire SkyCube project including the launch should weigh in at about $200,000, a startlingly low figure for those who think of space in terms of giant booster rockets lifting payloads as precious as gold. For we’re entering the era of commercial space, a trend SkyCube will leverage by getting its orbital boost from SpaceX, the private firm created by PayPal founder Elon Musk to produce a cheap route to Earth orbit.

So what will SkyCube do in space? One aspect is communications, for once it is is in orbit with its solar panels deployed, SkyCube will put its three cameras to work. Those KickStarter backers will see real benefits from their contribution: Those who have sent in $6 or more will be able to request one or more pictures from orbit, depending on the size of their donation. For others, the Satellite Safari app will be available for the same purpose. SkyCube will orbit for about three months, during which time it will also be broadcasting tweets from contributors and app users and handling messages that can be sent from a smartphone. Messages will be relayed to SkyCube by the MC3 (Mobile CubeSat Command and Control) network, headquartered at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, CA) and by Saber Astronautics in Sydney, Australia. From 600 kilometers up SkyCube will sent out tweets every ten seconds.

But SkyCube’s purpose stretches beyond its tweets and photos. The satellite also carries a balloon with a CO2-based inflation mechanism that will be activated when the mission terminates. Because the balloon’s titanium dioxide coating is highly reflective, it should be visible to millions of people on the ground below, a bright testament to what ingenuity, crowdsourced cash and digital miniaturization can do. The balloon will eventually cause the satellite’s orbit to decay as it encounters atmospheric drag, creating a fiery end as it falls back to Earth.

Burning up in the atmosphere, SkyCube’s return will be harmless, but it also serves as a reminder of NASA studies that have looked at ways of de-orbiting satellites to lower the population of space debris that could be hazardous to future missions. In every respect, the optics of this mission are right: It is a satellite that calls attention to itself not only by its onboard technology but the methods of its creation and construction, all crafted to bring the largest number of people into the mix, with a serious contribution to space science at the end.

From CubeSat framework to commercial launch vehicle, SkyCube will ride the rising tide of a new kind of space program, one that people participate in with their cash and follow on their devices. Its first stop in space will be the International Space Station, where it will be delivered with other cargo, and from which it will be deployed after about two months. The mission’s mobile app is now available, but you can also track the ‘people’s satellite’ at this address: http://www.southernstars.com/skycube/index.html.

Paul Gilster

Paul Gilster is a longtime technology and aerospace writer with a fascination for how we use computers.

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