The Space Age has never been smaller. The era of mini (and micro, nano, and pico) satellites is upon us. After the last century of government-funded, multi-billion jaunts into space, the costs of space travel are coming within reach of the (almost) average citizen.
Interorbital Systems claims it will launch TubeSat kits, “literally a satellite in a can,” with hardware to “capture videos, send e-mail from space, and conduct experiments” for $8,000. The initial launches are scheduled to leave Spaceport Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. For those wishing to place their ashes into space, you (or your remains) can reach suborbital altitude for about $1,000 and deep space at a bargain basement price $13,000.
But the plummeting costs and widening accessibility are inspiring more playful approaches to space travel as well.
Takashi Tanaka, aeronautics proessor at the Fuzhou Institute of Technology in Japan, recently launched a microsat, called the FITSAT-1 or Niwaka, to flash Morse code messages to Earth using high-powered LEDs. The small, three-pound satellite has beamed a flashing message, “Hi this is Niwaka Japan” in dots and dashes visible around the world. FITSAT-1 launched aboard an unmanned supply vessel to the International Space Station and entered orbit this September. After about 100 days (and circling the earth 16 times daily), it will burn up in the atmosphere.
Others are taking this cheap, off-the-shelf approach to satellites to test the limits of commercial technology. Engineers at the University of Surrey and private space technology firm SSTL are preparing the launch of STRaND-1, “the world’s first SmartPhone Nanosatellite.” The unmodified phone satellite will run Android’s open-source operating system. After testing by on-board micro-computer, the smartphone will take over operating parts of the satellite, says Shaun Kenyon, SSTL Project Manager for STRaND-1 on SSTL’s site.
This was all about launching cheaper, more powerful spacecraft using common technologies, he emphasized. “We’re not taking [the phone] apart; we’re not gutting it; we’re not taking out the printed circuit boards and re-soldering them into our satellite–we’re flying it as is,” says Kenyon. “We have no real idea how much will work in space….but ultimately the goal at SSTL is always to build more cost-effective, but highly advanced satellite systems.”