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Welcome back to my series on How to make a space mission! Last time we talked about how doing space activities has never been easier. CubeSats are making spacecraft cheaper and easier to make. Companies like Spaceflight and Nanoracks are making launch opportunities easier to access. And companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab are reducing the costs of launch. As happened with the internet, opportunities for science and business are appearing in areas no one could have reasonably expected. For example, who would have expected people to pay to have their ashes put in space? That’s why this is the time to be thinking of ideas for space missions.

Here’s how I try to come up with ideas:

  1. Identify a problem;
  2. Understand the problem;
  3. Establish possible solutions; and
  4. Find best solution.

As simple as they may sound, these steps are sufficient to build a really strong idea for a space mission. That said, this is by no means an easy process. The more time you put in these steps, the stronger your idea will be. Even if your idea turns out to be unfeasible right now, it just might be achievable in a few short years. And if it doesn’t turn out to be feasible? That’s failure, right? It is failure, but under the fail-fast approach, failing early when you’re in this brainstorming phase is best. You don’t want to spend months or years developing software or hardware, only to find out that it’s not possible or that no one’s interested in it!

Let’s dive in.

1) Identifying a problem

Wait a minute, why are we talking about problems? Why aren’t we talking about ideas and solutions? Well, it turns out that engineers, scientists, and startup founders all agree that the problem is the first thing that needs to be identified when trying to build something. It is the first step in the engineering design process, the scientific method, and in the lean startup approach. The engineering design process is shown below. Being an engineer, it is the process I’m most familiar with.

Steps of the Engineering Design Process
The engineering design process. Source: www.sciencebuddies.org

 

Figuring out the problem you’re trying to solve is probably the most important step. People with money are incredibly stingy folks, whether they be investors, grant providers, or otherwise. They won’t care about your solution, no matter how cool or amazing it is if you can’t persuade them that the problem you’re solving is important.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), problems aren’t hard to come by. You can read about problems all day on the internet, often in news articles and blogs. Simply asking someone about their day might be enough for you to hear three or four problems. And since you, the reader, are part of several demographics, your problems might well be problems worth solving.

2) Understanding the problem

This step is where I would try to understand what it is that the problem needs. In engineering, we call this step the “Specify Requirements” step. Simultaneously, I aim to determine whether this problem is one that can be theoretically solved within the limits of natural laws and the resources we are capable of gathering. For example, no matter how much various groups might demand faster than light travel, we simply do not have any techniques to make a warp drive or hyperdrive! A more grounded example might be something like the following.

The government has found a need to track individual cars for what they assure you are perfectly non-dystopian reasons. To do this, we require a telescope in space capable of seeing objects in the size range 1m or smaller. This is our requirement. Simple right?

Now, assuming our space telescope is at a 500km altitude and it needs to be able to resolve objects of 1m size, we can do a bit of trigonometry to show that this comes to an angular size of 0.4 arcseconds (or 0.0001 degrees). Due to something called the diffraction limit, there is a limit to how small of an object a telescope can see. The rule can be generalised as: the bigger the telescope, the smaller the things it can see. We can see this relationship below.

The relationship between telescope diameter (vertical column) and angular resolution (horizontal column). Source: en.wikipedia.org

 

Assuming the government wants us to take pictures of cars in visible light, this means that for a resolution of 0.4 arcsecs we need a telescope 16 inches (41cm) in diameter. Considering CubeSats are generally made of 10cm cubes, fitting such a large telescope into a CubeSat would be quite a tall order! This lets us rule out this idea for CubeSats. That said, a larger satellite could quite easily take images of sufficient resolution.

This step is a hard one, and will require significant research and review of scientific and commercial principles to get through. But again, the more time you spend here, the stronger your case!

3) & 4) Establishing possible solutions and picking the best one

Now we finally move into the design phase! These two steps are where things can get reeeeally complicated very quickly. Coming up with solutions may require some serious imagination and creativity. Picking the best solution is harder still, and may require some serious engineering chops and commercial considerations. As such, I won’t go into very much depth for these steps in this blog post.

While understanding the problem in the previous step, a number of solutions hopefully came to mind already. Indeed, we already considered one possible solution: 40cm telescope satellites at a 500km altitude. But what about other solutions? Why not just have a few drones flying around to take pictures? How about a plane? Or high altitude balloons? Considering my bias towards space, you can guess which solution I would pick! Here’s the justification:

  • A well made satellite will produce images for years and years at a time with a single investment. The other solutions require regularly purchasing flights, fuel, or balloons.
  • The satellite can take images of almost any place in the world without any additional investment, allowing you to make your business global as soon as your satellite launches. In comparison, the other solutions can only take images locally.

There are more issues that I haven’t covered. Nor have I produced any proof for the above statements. The reason for this is simple – I’m only writing a blog post, not proposing an actual mission! In the course of your own efforts, you will need to produce numbers through engineering and market analysis to back your assertions. These will be covered in Part 4 of this series.

 

So we didn’t go into very much depth at all! “Where is the space engineering?” you may ask. What was the point of all this? Well, my dear space-loving reader, it turns out that if you’ve done these steps to a reasonable level of detail, you’ve qualified yourself to take the next step – raising funds!

At BLUEsat, we’re in the midst of developing our own space mission. We’ve named it GreenSat. Creative, right? It’s to be a platform for agricultural and biological experiments in space, with the goal of enabling agriculture in space. Right now, we’re working on step 3 and heading towards step 4. We’ll be taking our work to the International Astronautical Congress, where we will present our ideas to an international audience. Through this, we’ll hopefully be able to get GreenSat funded and launched.

Join me in Part 3 where we’ll discuss the various avenues that now exist to raise money for space missions!