Small Satellites & Small Launchers | NanoSatisfi Uses Off-the-shelf Tech To Increase Space Accessibility

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SAN FRANCISCO — Trends including miniaturization, open sourcing of technology and crowdfunding are converging to make space and space-based experimentation accessible to an ever-widening swath of the population.

One of the latest examples is the ArduSat program, which leverages the open-source microelectronic circuitry known as Arduino. 

On Aug. 4, NanoSatisfi LLC, located here, sent two ArduSat cubesats to the international space station aboard Japan’s HTV 4 cargo flight for a mission designed to enable hundreds of students to perform their own space-based experiments. The mission was financed through a June 2012 crowdsource campaign that sought initially to raise $35,000 but garnered contributions totaling more than $106,000 in 30 days.

That reception is prompting NanoSatisfi to expand its ArduSat program. The company plans to launch a third spacecraft later this year and has “plans for many more launches next year and into the following years,” said Chris Wake, NanoSatisfi vice president of business development. “Our goal is to reach 500,000 students across the United States within the next five years, which will necessitate a number of future satellite launches.”

From its inception, the ArduSat program was designed to appeal to a wide audience. The miniature satellites feature Arduino, open source microcontrollers conceived by professors and students at Italy’s Design Institute of Ivrea who wanted to create simple, inexpensive integrated circuits for electronics. In recent years, the microcontrollers have spread to classrooms, workshops and garages worldwide where people with little or no software or hardware expertise can design and build everything from one-of-a-kind alarm clocks to sophisticated robots.

NanoSatisfi chose to use Arduino in its satellites “because we want to make space accessible in ways never before possible, and that starts with a technology that is itself accessible,” Wake said by email. “Students will have access this fall via our web portal to a curriculum that helps them learn Arduino and how to work with some of the sensors onboard ArduSat, as well as a simple interface they can use to push their experiment or application to our satellites.”

Arduino experts applaud NanoSatisfi’s choice. “Arduino lowers the barrier for entry into software and hardware development, so it’s not surprising that it is being adopted by the cubesat community,” Jeremy Blum, author of the book “Exploring Arduino,” said by email. “The general goal of cubesats is to democratize space experimentation. So it makes sense to use an open platform like the Arduino to make it accessible to as many people as possible.” 

Another key enabler is Houston-based NanoRacks LLC, which arranges transportation and accommodations for cubesat missions aboard the international space station. 

 NanoRacks arranged the trip to the space station for the cubesats and obtained approval from international space agencies for their launch.

U.S. and international customers have been lining up to travel that same path into orbit since NASA published images in October 2012 of five cubesats being ejected from Japan’s small-satellite orbital deployer. NanoRacks worked with NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to make arrangements for the launch of one of those spacecraft, a cubesat built by FPT University of Hanoi. 

“Since that first deployment, our small satellite business has absolutely taken off,” NanoRacks Managing Director Jeffrey Manber said Aug. 5. “We have 50 satellites under contract and memoranda of understanding for 100 more.” The customers include Planetary Resources Inc. The asteroid mining company based in Bellevue, Wash., announced plans in June to launch its first spacecraft, a technology demonstrator, into low Earth orbit through the Kibo airlock in 2014. 

To accommodate growing demand for its service, NanoRacks is building a cubesat deployer that can accommodate six single cubesats. The deployers are designed to stack in a manner that enables eight of them, for a total of 48 cubesats, to fit on a single pallet aboard Kibo, also known as the Japanese Multi-Purpose Experiment Platform. With the help of the Japanese slide table and robotic arm, the cubesats are likely to be launched in groups of six every one or two space station orbits to prevent collisions, Mike Johnson, NanoRacks chief technology officer, said.

In December, NanoRacks plans to send the first of its new deployers to the space station aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo capsule. NanoRacks charges customers $85,000 for launch of a single cubesat and offers discounts on subsequent orders. In return for that fee, NanoRacks handles payload integration, arranges transportation to the space station aboard U.S., Japanese or Russian flights, and works with NASA and the other station partners to obtain approval for the mission. NanoRacks is averaging approximately nine months from contract signing to launch of a customer’s cubesat, Manber said. 

Manber cites the popularity of NanoRacks’ cubesat launching service and the increasing number of space projects attracting crowdsource funding as prime examples of the “growing consumerization of the space industry.” While NanoRacks is holding discussions with officials from U.S. government agencies who are interested in flying cubesats from the space station, the vast majority of demand for the service is coming from commercial customers backed by private investors and crowdsource funding. 

“Now you have the prices low enough and procedure quick enough that the public is contributing,” Manber said. “More and more people are sharing in having done something in space and we think this is just the beginning.”