ramblings of an electronic engineer.

The Final Frontier

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“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Space. This is what has been occupying most of my mental space for the past couple of weeks, specifically thinking about cubesats, how to design, build and send them to space.

To explain further let me backtrack to Sunday night a few weeks ago after church. I was having a conversation with one of my friends and I was asked “If you could work on any project what would it be?” I thought about the things on my project list and replied either a fusor reactor or cube sat. I was quick to then point out how infeasible each of these was due to either financial or legal reasons but throughout the week it got me thinking. (Quick side note I’ll likely never design or build a fusor reactor due to the safety concerns and potential legal reason alone so moving on…).

What is a cubesat?

So it’s probably good to first explain what a cubesat actually is. Simply put it is a satellite in the shape of a small cube (10cm³) however some other form factors to exist such that you can have various rectangular satellites. Since 2003 university’s around the world have been designing (along side students) these small form factor satellites and sending them to space as secondary payloads on supply missions to eventually get launched into low earth orbit (LEO). These satellites contain particular experiments to perform on their time in orbit around the earth before eventually de-orbiting and burning up the the atmosphere.

What prohibits me sending a cubesat to space?

This question is the one I’ve been thinking about. On the surface level the answers seem obvious, the vast expanse of knowledge required in electronics design, orbital mechanics, material selection etc…, the cost of building a satellite, government regulations and laws. Given these issues probably the largest to overcome by far is the cost involved with the project which last time I checked is easily upwards of 25k. Spending that amount of money on something that at worst just doesn’t work when it reaches space and at best will burn up to nothing as it de-orbits just isn’t justifiable and for this reason alone is why the project has been benched for so long. However there is no reason to say that over time the costs for manufacturing and transporting cubesats to space won’t decrease. Even in the past two years there has been an increased interest in the hobbies/maker/hacker movements to start designing and sending cubesats to space and presumably if the interest continues to pick up (with projects like SatNOGS) it may not be inconceivable that the costs of a cubesat become affordable in the future. So thinking further under the premise of the project potentially been financially feasible over a long time really the only other barrier is knowledge and experience (government regulations are a bit of a wild card but i’m not overly worried).

On a long time frame.

So about a decade is the time frame I’m looking at the moment to gain the various facets of knowledge and experience required, design, build and test a cubesat for orbit. As i’m starting to more in depth with the various parts of the project I find that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. So needless to say the timeframe is pretty flexible 😛 Looking through my current project list there are various aspects of certain project that would be helpful for designing a cubesat for example, environmental monitoring has aspects of power generation & storage, wireless communication, sensors etc.. while a barn door tracker incorporated aspects of celestial movement and object tracking. Workin on these project will over time help with the overall project.

And off we go, kinda.

So what changes from here beyond? In many respects this doesn’t change much, It’s going to be several years still till I even start designing some of the satellites sub systems so for the time been I’ll be working on projects to increase my knowledge in the areas required. I’ve also started a pile of reading on the subject, from NASA satellite and launch specs to preflight testing. It’s going to be a long adventure but hopefully worth it! Although there are many factors involved at the very worst I intend to have a completed cubesat even if it doesn’t make it to orbit and a whole lot of projects completed along the way. The first project I’m working on towards this goal is something called software defined radio (SDR) but I won’t get too much into that now but will leave it for the weeks ahead.


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