Monthly Archives: May 2014

DIY Space: Personal Satellite Kits

Tubesat image from IOS website. Click on it to embiggen.

For this DIY project things are a bit pricey–as in thousands of dollars pricey.  If you’re one of those lucky few who happens to have that kind of money sitting around, then perhaps these two kits are meant for you.  The kits are available online from Interorbital Systems (IOS).  If you buy one or two, the rest of us will just have to watch and provide pointers, if asked.

The Cubesat Personal Satellite Kit is what it says it is:  a cubesat bus or satellite with the basics provided, such as solar cells, a battery pack, and more (kit details are here).  From those basics, a kit buyer can then add any kind of experimental payload or software package to the kit.  The only real barrier is the weight.  The satellite can only weigh 1 to 1.33 kilograms (2lbs 3oz to 2lbs 15oz).  Because of the weight variation, there’s no set price, but however much the satellite weighs, the cost of launch is included in it.  And of course the cubesat can be customized quite a bit–but costs go up correspondingly.

Then there’s IOS’ Tubesat Personal Satellite Kit.  $8000 buys a smaller satellite than the Cubesat, but it also includes the launching of the Tubesat into space.  The Tubesat can be loaded up with the payload of your choice until the whole thing weighs .75 kilograms (around 1lb 10oz).  But its shape is what gives the kit its name, it looks like a cylinder with solar panels on the side.  Details of the Tubesat are here.  Like the cubesat kit, the tubesat can be heavily customized, but again, costs go up according to weight, etc.  But it could be an imagery bird, a communications satellite, or something unimagined–which is what makes the smallsat field exciting.

When the cubesats/tubesats are ready to be launched, they will be launched with IOS’ Neptune rocket system.  The rocket launches from a “private island launch site” in the Pacific (coast of California, Hawai’i, or Kingdom of Tonga), and places both Cubesats and Tubesats in a 310 kilometer (192 mile) low earth orbit.  They say the satellites will operate for up to nearly two months.  However, IOS also say the space weather could impact a cubesat’s/tubesat’s orbit duration, so the satellites might re-enter as early as three weeks after launch or on schedule after two months.

Based on that information, it might be good to get a space weather report before sending your satellite up there.  Just sayin’…



Pictures of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy


One is a lonely number for SpaceX. Poor, lonely Falcon 9 model–sitting in a corner, no less.  Note that it does have the landing legs attached, just the wrong color.

One of the problems with the SpaceX booth at the 30th Space Symposium last week is they only displayed their Falcon 9 rocket (and the landing legs were the wrong color–black–instead of the white a real Falcon 9 booster is painted with).  Of course, it’s the only rocket that SpaceX uses so far.  The other problem, by the way–not that many reps on the floor.  But back to the rockets.  We know SpaceX will be building other rockets, including the Falcon Heavy.  But those models were nowhere to be seen.  Instead, they showed some videos of their test models, like the Falcon 9 Reusable, in action.

They didn’t even have a mock-up of their new Dragon Version 2 capsule on the floor.  It’s supposed to be the next generation of crewed capsule.  Like the Falcon 9 rocket, the capsule is supposed to eventually be reusable.  Of course SpaceX did introduce it only last night.  The video of that event is below.

Fear not. has a picture gallery for you of the Falcon Heavy in simulated flight.  This is the rocket SpaceX would love to use for some of the heavier government payloads.  It doesn’t really exist yet, and has never been flown.  It’s not projected to be ready for testing until 2015.  Which is also probably the reason why the government really doesn’t want to use the Falcon Heavy–it’s not a proven technology just yet.  Compare that with the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) offerings (models shown below), and it’s easy to see why the government keeps going along with the ULA as a contract partner–more options that are proven (albeit REALLY expensive).  Still doesn’t excuse the willingness to keep a monopoly secure, though.


The ULA’s multiple rocket platforms. It’s too bad they weren’t directly across from SpaceX–that might’ve meant next year’s SpaceX booth would be better, perhaps.

Why Space Matters: HEO Satellite Operations, Part 5–Spysats, IR, and MMS

The Molniya orbit, a type of highly elliptical orbit (HEO), was the focus of the last HEO post.  And it was noted that the Molniya is an orbit perfectly suited to communication.  But what other missions and satellites use the HEO?

Believe it or not, the US has organizations that use the HEO for a few missions.  The most recent launch of the NROL-33 “spy satellite” is kind of related to the HEO, in that it’s part of a possible satellite communications and data constellation using a combination of HEO and geosynchronous (GEO) satellites called the Space Data Segment (SDS).

SDS-3 Constellation. Image on

In the illustration above, they call this particular combination of HEO and GEO satellites the “SDS-3 Constellation.”  Does anyone really know what’s on these satellites, aside from the people working with them?  One observation:  realize the government likes to maximize on their investments with additional payloads on satellites.  Just look at what NASA has done with their satellites and payloads to get an idea.  There’s nothing to prevent the installation of some kind of extra monitoring payloads on any of these satellites.  As discussed before regarding why the Russians use this kind of orbit, the view of areas that might be interesting to the US is pretty good.  Only the people working with this constellation really know what it’s all for, though.

Image from Wikipedia. SBIRS constellation. Old picture, as SBIRS LEO is now STSS.

A few more HEO birds owned by the US are the overpriced Space Based InfraRed System (SBIRS) HEO satellites.  There are currently two in orbit, with a third theoretically on the way.  This system is a little more straightforward in purpose, as it’s part of the early warning system for missile launch detection.  Why would the US want two to three missile launch detection satellites in highly elliptical orbit?  The Russians/Soviets also did and still do use satellites in HEO for early warning.  But the SDS, SBIRS, and OKO (Russian) satellites have to do with terrestrial activities and likely are trying to give their corresponding militaries an edge on terrestrial battlefields.

The most interesting mission using the HEO is one that’s coming up and has nothing to do with human activities on Earth:  NASA’s Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS).  The focus of this two-phase mission isn’t necessarily the Earth, but the Earth’s magnetic field.  And not just the Earth’s magnetic field, but the Sun’s, too, and observing the interplay (NASA say the connecting and disconnecting of the fields) between the two fields.  The mission uses four satellites that will be “flying” in formation and placed in a “low-inclination” elliptical orbit of 28 degrees.  This means the orbit’s tilt is at a 28 degree angle to the Earth’s Equator.

Different phases, different elliptical orbital periods. Image on MMS site.

During phase 1, the satellites will have a perigee (point of orbit closest to the Earth) of 7,645 kilometers (4,750 miles) and an apogee (point of orbit furthest away from the Earth) of 76,452 kilometers (47,505 miles–at least I think NASA means apogee—on their website they say perigee twice).  During Phase 2, the perigee’s the same, but apogee increases to 159,274 kilometers (a little over 98,968 miles).  Seems like that’s pretty far, but believe it or not, the Moon is still further away, at over 238,857 miles average distance from Earth.

The two different orbits are designed to pass through the reconnection points of the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun.  So they are necessarily big.  But such an orbit also allows the satellites to “sample” different portions of the magnetic fields.  And they fly in a pyramid formation to help map out the reconnection events in 3-D.  Why go through all of this just to observe these reconnection events?  The reconnection events tend to release energy, and the energy can impact the electronics here on Earth and on the satellites orbiting around it.  There’s more to the science of these satellites on the MMS website.  As a side note, the MMS satellites will be controlled out of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder, Colorado (same place the Kepler mission is run out of).  Worth visiting, if only just to walk around the campus in Spring.

And while you’re in Boulder, enjoy the offerings of the Avery Brewing Company, which has a terrific Belgian Wheat (White Rascal) beer and a tasty Imperial Oktoberfest (The Kaiser) beer.  Sadly, there are no beers for HEO—which means we are now at the empty bottle part of the lesson.

Dextre: When Humans Just Won’t Do

Dextre in the highlighted area of picture. Image from Wikipedia. Click on it to go there.

It might come as a surprise to some people that Canada has a space agency–the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).  Some Americans might view our northern neighbor’s agency as a NASA-Lite, but that would be very untrue.  It might be even more surprising for people to know the CSA is very active and has provided some critical equipment to the cooperative international space programs going on today.

One of those pieces of equipment is a robot, called Dextre.  Dextre is orbiting overhead on the International Space Station (ISS) since March 2008, and serving as the station’s robotic handyman.  An engineer earned a bit of money by giving it its true name:  the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM).  Some people are also calling it the Canada Hand.  But thankfully someone decided the name Dextre is the better alternative.

The robot doesn’t look anything like Johnny 5.  It actually looks more like an albino praying mantis.  It has no head, but does have two 11 ft. long arms.  The arms’ “hands” can be configured to hold different kinds of tools and objects, and have an outlet to power particular tools.  Dextre’s body is nearly 12 ft. tall.   There are also TV cameras mounted on the body.

Dextre (in foreground, holding a “crate”) helped unpack HTV-2. This picture shows Canadarm2 releasing HTV-2 for re-entry. Image from Wikipedia.

While Dextre is pretty neat, its job is to do mundane and risky tasks on the outside of the ISS.  Canada is showing that a space robot can work well, and keep ISS inhabitants safe.  Its activities minimize the amount of times astronauts need to go out on a spacewalk and work, which is always risky.  Canada is also trying to show how a robot can effectively service and repair satellites (see video below).

The Canadians are justifiably proud of Dextre and their space accomplishments.  They even have it on their $5 bill (go to this wiki image to see it).  Not too shabby for a bunch of Canuckleheads…not shabby at all.  At least until Dextre becomes self-aware.  Then we’ll blame Canada.

Googs in Space?


Google’s maybe getting into space?  This is an interesting TechCrunch article about the possible acquisition of satellite imagery company SkyBox by advertising aggregator Google.  Theoretically, SkyBox is Google’s only target, but TechCrunch does float Planet Labs and RapidEye as possible targets, too.  Except, SkyBox is the ONLY satellite company offering real-time streaming of High Definition video.  Which might be one of the reasons why Google might want to buy SkyBox.

It seems to me, though, there should be some serious questions about why Google is buying an imagery company like SkyBox.  As far as we know, Google has been fairly satisfied with using imagery from satellite operators like DigitalGlobe.  So why think about buying an actual satellite imagery operator like SkyBox (aside from the cool factor)?  What would this do for Google that’s not happening right now?

What instantly leaps to mind is maybe Google is perhaps not getting the best imagery its money can buy.  US-based companies like DigitalGlobe are only allowed to sell their highest resolution imagery to US government customers.  They can’t, under current laws, sell it to anyone else.  I am not a lawyer, but what can you do with the imagery if you are the owner of the imagery?  And, what if you’re literally just giving it away on a platform such as Google Maps or Google Earth?  I don’t think lawmakers ever foresaw a multi-billion-dollar company giving away imagery in a networked world.  In some ways, Google is using better imagery from airplanes, too, and they’re not prevented from using those for their maps.

So perhaps Google is tired of not getting the best (although, arguably, SkyBox’s camera resolution won’t supply the 25 centimeter resolution that DigitalGlobe’s birds can).  But if Google supplies the money, SkyBox can up this part of the game, eventually.  Right now they’re operating only one satellite, with a second hopefully on the books for them in the next few months.  Of course, this is not really a complete answer to why Google might want to buy SkyBox.

There’s the HD video portion that makes SkyBox unique.  What on Earth could Google do with that information?  Sure, some of the video might be useful for a Google Doodle, but I bet there’s more on their minds for SkyBox.  Theoretically, the satellite’s video camera might be able to give real-time visual information of traffic.  It could also provide information about weather.  It could be used to tie in to a Google Glass type of device or your cell phone.  Frighteningly, it could also be used to track a particular device with great accuracy (of course, they’re kind of doing that already).  More useful applications would be for helping fire-fighters determine “hot-spots” real-time–something that can’t really be done with a DigitalGlobe-type constellation.

But it would all only be useful if SkyBox can get more satellites in orbit than the single satellite they are using right now.  Then things can get really interesting.  If there was a full constellation, Google could accomplish a “sideways” move.  Think about the projects they’ve worked on in the past:  Project LoonGoogle Fiber, and their activities in the spectrum auctions.  Google has done a lot to promote internet communications.  It would make sense to put a secondary or tertiary communications payload on these satellites.  Payloads dedicated to supplying internet service, that are able to interlink with other satellites.  Admittedly, that gets more complicated than just supplying imagery to the world.

Such a system, if used, might be a way for Google to skirt country boundaries and laws.  Unless there was a requirement for a “government monitoring device” to be installed in a ground station, Google would be able to give the world internet access.  The way to get around the ground station bottleneck might be just to have devices generally available that can talk back and forth to the satellites from the ground (kind of like Iridium, but with less government sponsorship and smaller phones, perhaps).  Or perhaps use a converted barge as a floating ground station in international waters.  Of course, this is all conjecture, but it’s fun to do.

Does all of this mean Google gets my trust back?  Well, let’s see:  this basically increases surveillance ability and Google has no obligation to transparency.  They still, somehow, get ads through to me with no context, except through words misinterpreted by their fairly lame algorithm.  They still feel obligated to share information with the government without too much of a fight.  So, nope.  Watch the skies, then, and smile–you’re on Google Kamera.