Ask any Silicon Valley entrepreneur about their startup and they'll usually tell you the sky is the limit. For some, it's not just the limit but the goal. Combining advances in electronics and new sources of funding with the Valley's geeky, do-it-yourself culture, two teams are turning to the Internet to fund satellites and take project supporters along for the ride into space.
A fundraising campaign for one of the satellites, SkyCube, launched on Kickstarter over the weekend with the goal of raising US$82,500. Kickstarter is an online service popular with entrepreneurs and startups for raising money.
The team is led by Tim DeBenedictis, a self-described "space nut" and the man behind the popular Sky Safari smartphone app that provides a guide to the stars. [See DeBenedictis and SkyCube in this YouTube video.]
SkyCube is expected to be in orbit for about three months. During that time, it will take pictures of Earth with three VGA cameras and deliver 120-character messages to smartphones running a SkyCube app. The messages will be collected on Earth and transmitted to the satellite about once a day, where they will be stored in memory and broadcast every 10 seconds. In addition to the app, anyone with a fairly modest amateur radio-type receiver might also be able to pick up the broadcasts directly.
SkyCube was born after DeBenedictis and a friend attended the first Space Shuttle launch in July 2011.
"It was like a religious experience ... but it was also very sad because it was the last one of these missions," he said in an interview. It was then he decided to do something himself to continue the spirit of the program.
When DeBenedictis started researching the idea of launching his own satellite, he soon realized a self-built rocket was beyond his capabilities. But then he came across the Cubesat program.
The program began in 1989 to provide universities with a standard, low-cost method of building a satellite, one that would typically measure just 10 centimeters cubed. It was developed under Dr. Jordi Puig-Suari at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Professor Bob Twiggs at Stanford University.
"In the past, there were only a few select universities in the U.S. that had access to space. The CubeSat standard effectively opened up access to space to virtually anyone who adheres to the standard," said Roland Coelho, who works at Cal Poly's CubeSat program.
Today, the U.S. Air Force and the space programs of India, Russia and Japan all make space available on most of their rocket launches to carry a handful of Cubesats into space. There are also plans to launch Cubesats from the International Space Station, using Japan's robotic arm.
Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is supporting one of the ISS projects.
"The CubeSat 'movement' has really matured over the past two decades," he said.
Launching a Cubesat costs a fraction of the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to launch a telecommunications satellite. But they get little more than the ride. The satellites sit in a tube and, once in orbit, a spring fires them into space. It's not particularly high-tech, but getting into space has always been the biggest hurdle to any would-be satellite builder.
With SkyCube, Kickstarter backers will get to broadcast their own short messages and request pictures of various parts of the world depending on how much they pledge. A dollar gets you one message from space, while $10 will get you 10 messages and two images of an area of your choice. For backers who can afford $10,000 or more, a trip to Cape Canaveral and a day of operation are available.
On a recent afternoon the team was working on SkyCube at TechShop Menlo Park, a workshop popular with geeks and tinkerers that allows access to machinery and electronic test equipment for a monthly fee.
Christopher Phoenix, the project's radio expert, was hunched over two circuit boards trying to get each to communicate with each other. One will be built into SkyCube and the other will be at the ground station. It's just one of the many tasks ahead for the team before a September deadline to deliver a SkyCube to Space X, the Californian company that will launch it on a Falcon 9 rocket in the first half of 2013.
A second Cubesat project, Ardusat, is also based out of Silicon Valley and just closed its Kickstarter funding after raising just over $100,000. Based on an Arduino Nano open-source computer board, the satellite will carry about 25 sensors. Backers will be able to run their own experiments on the satellite.
Ellegood, the space policy analyst, said things could soon get cheaper.
"Now there are multiple projects to develop Cubesat-class rockets that can launch these payloads much more cheaply than can be done on larger rockets," he said.
One, the NASA-sponsored Nano Satellite Launch Challenge, will award a multimillion-dollar prize to the first team to launch two Cubesats into orbit within a week.
"The thinking is that if launch prices come down, the Cubesat industry will expand dramatically."
Back at the TechShop in Menlo Park, DeBenedictis is examining a sheet made of mylar, a very thin type of polyester.
"You can't really see a satellite the size of a coffee cup in orbit but you can see a large satellite, so how do we make our satellite large?" he said, eyeing the mylar sheet. "We've put a balloon on board and that will inflate with an 8-gram carbon dioxide cartridge to 3 meters across, and suddenly our little tiny satellite has become the size of the Hubble space telescope."
While missed by many, it's relatively easy to see large satellites like the Hubble or the International Space Station as they pass though the evening sky. As dusk falls, the spacecraft are still illuminated by the sun, making them as bright as the brightest stars. There are websites devoted to helping people identify them and DeBenedictis hopes his funders will get special excitement from seeing the satellite they helped pay for.
"You'll get an alert on your phone saying, 'Look up now,' and there it is."
The balloon will serve double duty, slowing the satellite so that it falls toward Earth and burns up in the atmosphere at the end of its three-month mission.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org