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Did you want to be an astronaut growing up? Were your lofty ambitions brought down as you got older?

I’m here today to tell you to aim high once again – to aim for space. Maybe not as high as actually personally going to space, but you can get pretty close thanks to advancements in miniature spacecraft. It has never been easier to send something you built yourself to space. While it’s still a lot of work, the rewards are incredible.

In recent years, increasing numbers of small satellites have been launched by people and organisations that historically had no ability to reach space. The most common architecture for these small satellites are known as CubeSats. These CubeSats are built with commercial off-the-shelf parts and can be developed by individuals or small teams in the space of a few years. They are launched into space by hitchhiking on the backs of larger satellites. These advances mean that CubeSats have become as much as 1000 times cheaper than traditional satellites. This cost decrease has enabled the rise and growth of NewSpace startups such as Planet, which has grown to a valuation of over a billion dollars in five years.

Two of Planet's Dove CubeSates being deployed from the International Space Station.
The first pair of Planet’s Dove CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station.

 

Here’s what you’ll need to get started on developing your own CubeSat mission:

  1. An idea;
  2. Some money; and
  3. A few skills.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Let’s go into a bit more depth.

The Idea

The idea you come up will be what your bit of space hardware will do once it’s up there, or in other words, its mission. Satellites are the invisible MVPs of today’s world, taking care of weather forecasts, global navigation, communications and much more. If you want to send some hardware up there in the form of a satellite or otherwise, you will first need to find a problem to solve with it.

There are over 2000 operational satellites in space today, all doing their part for us. However, the small satellites and hosted payloads you or I can send up will not be doing the same work as the bigger billion dollar satellites. I mention this because the key to finding and building on a good idea isn’t sitting around and thinking really hard. To build a solid idea, you will have to read widely, speak to the people whose problem you’re looking to solve, and to listen carefully to their feedback.

Money

While money isn’t as big an issue nowadays as it once was thanks to the NewSpace revolution, reaching space is still an expensive ordeal. You will most likely need hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for construction, testing, launch, and operations.

Now, there is a way to reverse this problem entirely, and instead make money from your space mission. The way to do this is to go back to your idea and to ask: Is this something people would pay for? Am I tackling a big enough pain point for people? While this is not the traditional way, you and I are even less likely to find success begging NASA or ESA for money.

Skills

Now here is where we at BLUEsat come in! As engineers with few ideas and little money, skills are where we try to excel.

Some serious engineering ability is still needed nowadays to reach space. But with open source architectures and modular off-the-shelf parts becoming more readily available, the level of knowledge needed has dropped considerably. A bit of background on the basics of spacecraft engineering, electrical engineering and coding is all you’ll need to get started. Learning the rest will happen automatically as you design and build.

This is more or less how BLUEsat approaches spacecraft engineering. Students joining BLUEsat aren’t equipped with encyclopedic knowledge of how spacecraft are built and how they work. We simply teach our members the basics, install some software for them and point them towards some problem that we would like to solve. Every one of our senior members has started from such humble origins and slowly googled and built their way to greater understanding.

Members of BLUEsat's ground station team messing about with RF electronics.
Members of BLUEsat’s ground station team messing about with RF electronics.

So why am I telling you this?

At BLUEsat, our Orbital Systems Division is hard at work on a number of projects. We have recently put together a team to work on developing a mission for our own CubeSat, and we need your help. No matter your year or degree, we will gladly take you in and help build your space engineering capabilities. We meet at Electrical Engineering (G17) room 419 every Saturday between 10:30AM and 5PM. Feel free to pop in and say hi.

I’ll see you folks in Part 2, where we talk a little more about how to come up with space mission ideas.