As the emerging commercial space industry enables more people to travel into space, and we become more dependent on satellite systems for military and commercial purposes, accurate and timely space weather forecasts are a matter of growing importance.

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Written by Astro1 on April 26th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

We previously reported that registration the First Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop, scheduled to take place May 29-30 in Cambridge MA, had filled up. There’s good news for people who still want to attend.

Although the main auditorium is full, conference organizers have set up a second room with a video link. (They are calling it, appropriately enough, the satellite room.) Registration for the satellite room is being discounted to $150 ($37.50 for students) for those who register by May 1. Click here to register.

There are also plans to provide a live video stream of the event for those who cannot attend.

It’s great to see the planetary-science community is once again taking a strong interest in low-cost missions. With NASA’s budget situation getting worse every year, CubeSats might be the salvation of the planetary-science program.

Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

We recently reported on NASA’s plans to fly low-cost satellites based on consumer smartphones. NASA plans to fly three PhoneSats based on Nexus One smartphone and Android operating system in 2012. In 2013, it plans to launch a constellation of 14-20 Ethersats, based on the Nexus One satellite bus that’s being tested on PhoneSat missions.

This isn’t the first time NASA has flown Android smartphones in space, however. In 2011, the SPHERES robots aboard the International Space Station were upgraded to use Nexus S smartphones. NASA modified the phones by removing the GSM cellular communications chip to avoid interference with ISS electronics, so the phones are permanently in airplane mode, and replaced the standard lithium-ion battery with AA alkaline batteries.

Smartphone processors are 10-100 times faster than the radiation-hardened chips normally found in space systems, so the new brain provides a significant upgrade to the robots’ capabilities.

NASA astronauts have also used the Apple iPhone 4s, running a custom app called Spacelab for iOS developed by Odyssey Space Research. Citizen scientists who want to experiment with the Spacelab for iOS app can download it from the iTunes App Store for $0.99. The app that’s available on iTunes is identical to the version that was flown to ISS on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the same flight that carried the Nexus S smartphones for SPHERES. The Spacelab for iOS app contains a gravity check that allows ground-based users to perform simulated experiments that mimic the tasks and objectives of the flight experiments.



Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

NASA Ames Research Center continues work on its PhoneSat project, which is demonstrating the ability to build very-low-cost satellites using Android smartphones as processors.

Ames has built two versions of the PhoneSat – PhoneSat 1, which costs about $3500, and PhoneSat 2, which costs just under $8,000. Both versions are based on HTC Nexus One smartphones. The first PhoneSats are scheduled to be launched aboard an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares launch vehicle. The launch, funded under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services  (COTS) program, is scheduled for the third quarter of 2012. It will carry two PhoneSat 1 satellites and one PhoneSat 2. A second PhoneSat launch is expected to occur in 2013.

PhoneSat isn’t just about cost-cutting, though. Engineers are not sacrificing power for the sake of economy. Quite the contrary. Thanks to the rapid advance of consumer electronics, cell phones have become powerful supercomputers. The Nexus One processor will be 10-100x more powerful than any other processor that’s flown in space.

After the tech demo flights, the PhoneSat bus will serve as the basis for future low-cost satellite missions, beginning with the Ethersat mission that’s scheduled for launch in mid-2013. Sponsored by the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist, Ethersat will be a constellation of fourteen CubeSats, with an option for six additional satellites. EtherSat will demonstrate advanced cross-link and down-link communications, attitude control, and other emerging technologies. Such constellations are expected to have applicability to future earth-science and military missions. Ethersat is funded under the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Program.

In addition to the Nexus One, the PhoneSat contains an Arduino board. Low-cost satellites generally avoid using radiation-hardened (“rad hard”) electronics, due to the expensive. A single rad-hard processor can cost $400,000. Instead, they have watchdog systems (in this case, the open-source Arduino board) to reboot the main processor if it crashes due to a radiation event.



Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

[Update 3/25/14: DARPA has awarded an ALASA development contract to Boeing.]

Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is headed by Mitchell Burnside Clapp, a long-time advocate of air launch and winged systems. Burnside Clapp was one of the founders of Pioneer Rocketplane, which later became Rocketplane, LLC.

ALASA seeks to address military concerns with traditional ground-launched systems. The military views these systems as costly due to high manpower requirements at fixed facilities, sluggish due to the need to reconfigure pads between launches, rigid due to limitations on launch azimuth launch times, and brittle because they are vulnerable to weather, earthquake, tsunamis, and enemy attack. DARPA believes that air launched systems will be more affordable, more responsive (the goal is one day from call-up to launch), more flexible (any orbit, any time), and more resilient.

Airborne Launch Assist for Space Access (ALASA) Launch Sequence -- DARPA project

Like NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, ALASA hopes to develop a reliable, cost-effective launcher for small satellites. DARPA’s definition of “small” is a bit different, though. The NASA challenge is targeting CubeSat-sized payloads up to one kilogram. ALASA wants to develop a system that can put up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms) into Low Earth Orbit. That would apparently rule out systems like the GO Launcher, for example.

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Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Generation Orbit is a new subsidiary of SpaceWorks Engineering. Headed by SpaceWorks veteran A.C. Charania, Generation Orbit plans to develop an air-launch system for nanosatellites.

Generation Orbit estimates there are 250 nanosatellite projects at the present time. It expects that there will be a market for 100 nano satellite launches per year by the end of this decade. Currently, most small satellites are launched as secondary payloads on rideshare missions, which means their operators have little or no control over launch schedule and orbital destination. Generation Orbit believes that air launch will provide more flexibility.

The company’s initial demonstrator, GO Launcher 1, would use existing solid-fueled upper stages. Go Launcher 1 could mature into an operational capability capable of delivering 1-10 kilograms to a 250-kilometer circular orbit.

GO Launcher 2 would be a larger system capable of placing 20-30 kilograms into a 450 km circular orbit. It might incorporate new technology.

Generation Orbit’s conceptual design appears quite open at the present time. The company’s website shows potential concepts based on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and F-15D Eagle, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and a Gulfstream II or III business jet.

Gulfstream, F-4 Phantom II, F-15 Eagle, and Su-27 Flanker

The F-15 option parallels a future concept being studied at at Premier Space Systems.

The Su-27 option might seem odd choice, given that Generation Orbit intends to operate in the US. The company hopes to fly from a variety of launch sites including the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California, Kennedy Space Center, and Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. 

There is at least one operation Su-27 in the United States at the present time, however. Reliable sources tell us that the registered owner is actually a dummy company owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. There is no reason to believe he’s involved with Generation Orbit, however.

By coincidence, Paul Allen is also has an interest in air-launch projects, having financed the development of SpaceShip One and being the founder of Stratolaunch.

A.C. Charania has participated in workshops for NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, so it seems a safe bet that Generation Orbit intends to compete for that prize.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Montana State University has announced plans to build a technology-test satellite called PrintSat. A one-unit CubeSat (10 cm on a side), PrintSat will be built out of nano-carbon-impregnated plastic using a 3D printer.

PrintSat was selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative in 2012 and may be in space as soon as 2013.

MSU professor David Klumpar said 3D printing “will further lower the costs and speed the development of very small satellites, enabling future scientific missions comprised of dozens of satellites flying in formation.”

Printing satellite parts on Earth for use in space is one thing, but Made in Space is a startup company that wants to use 3D printers to manufacture parts in space. Made in Space tested two printers on Zero Gee flights in the summer of 2011 under the sponsorship of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. In one experiment, they manufactured an open-end wrench to show how 3D printing could produce tools for use aboard a future space station.

Made in Space hopes  test their 3D printing technology aboard a suborbital flight in the near future.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is not limited to plastics. 3D printers have been demonstrated with a wide variety of materials including metals. Paul Breed of Unreasonable Rocket has demonstrated the use of such a printer to build rocket engines.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

At the recent CubeSat Developer’s Workshop at Cal Poly, we heard a rumor that somebody had launched a CubeSat made from Legos.

Unfortunately, the Lego-1 CubeSat appears to be a hoax – an April Fool’s joke.

Although no one has yet built a CubeSat structure out of Legos yet, a team of International Space University students at NASA Ames Research Center did build a prototype satellite that uses Lego NXT electronics. It made the cover of Make magazine in October 2010.

We hope someone does build a CubeSat out of Legos soon, though, because. Just because.

Written by Astro1 on April 20th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

The First Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop, scheduled to take place May 29-30 in Cambridge, MA has filled up for both attendees and visitors. A waiting list has been created.

The workshop has received more than 40 “high quality” abstracts.

This unexpectedly strong interest in interplanetary CubeSat missions is a good sign. During the 1990’s, NASA looked to innovative low-cost Discovery and New Horizon missions as a solution to cost escalation and cost overruns. The motto in those days was “No more Cassinis!” Unfortunately, that changed after a few highly publicized (and highly politicized) mission failures. The result is cost-busting missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars Science Laboratory. Even Discovery-class missions have escalated in cost and complexity. The merits of conducting frequent, low-cost missions are undeniable, however. Thanks to rapid advances in microelectronics, the idea of low-cost planetary missions is reemerging in the form of  CubeSats.

Best of all, since CubeSat is an open standard, there is a better chance the interplanetary CubeSat idea will survive even if NASA or it’s political masters lose interest.

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Planetary science

Space Florida, which manages the $3-million Nanosatellite Launch Challenge for NASA, has published draft rules for the competition.

The goal of the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is to encourage the development of new systems for low-cost, frequent launches of small payloads.

The draft rules call for a prize of $1.5 million going to the first team that completes two successful launches, with a payload of one kilogram each, within a period of seven days. Each payload must complete at least one orbit of the Earth with a maximum perigee of 2000 kilometers. Both launches must use the same vehicle type and design.

Second and third prizes of $1 million and $500,000 go to the next two teams to achieve the goal. The payload does not need to be functional. 

The first prize can be won by a ground-launched or air-launched vehicle. If the first prize is won by a ground-launched vehicle, the second prize can only be won by an air-launched vehicle, and vice versa.

The Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. Unlike most Centennial Challenges, which require systems to be developed solely with private investment, the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge allows vehicles based on designs developed by or for the government. Vehicles must be manufactured without substantial government investment (more than initial phase one SBIR funding or $150,000 whichever is greater).

This seems like a curious rule, since the purpose of Centennial Challenges is normally to encourage the development of a system or capability without traditional government development contracts. It would be theoretically possible for a team to win the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge with a rocket developed entirely at government expense, paying only for the cost of two launches. (In practice, there has been a notable lack of government interest in nanosatellite launcher development.)

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

Lieutenant Colonel Guy Mathewson from the National Reconnaissance Office (Office of Space Launch) gave the keynote at the Spring CubeSat Workshop, which began today at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo.

It’s still a bit jarring to see a representative of an agency whose very existence was secret for many years speaking at an open conference. Especially a conference that encourages other people to build satellites.

Lt. Col. Mathewson said that NRO is investigating meeting some of its future needs with CubeSats. Lt. Col. Mathewson believes CubeSats can simultaneously revolutionize how NRO gets intelligence and help to develop the future aerospace workforce.

The National Reconnaissance Office is not only talking about satellites openly, it is helping other organizations get their satellites into orbit. NRO is doing its first rideshare mission in August from Vandenburg Air Force Base, carrying 11 CubeSats. NRO plans to do one rideshare mission per year. “Not too many people thought NRO would be doing rideshare missions,” Lt. Col. Mathewson said.

Live streaming of CubeSat Workshop sessions is available here.

Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

Robert Cong, product marketing manager at Jameco Electronics, has posted an article on using nitinol muscle wire for motor-less mechanical motion.

Nitonol, a nickel-titanium alloy, is sometimes called memory metal. It’s been around since the 1960’s. In the 1973, an engineer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory used nitinol to build the world’s first solid-state heat engine.

Nitinol has some interesting possible applications robotics, low-cost space probes, and nanosatellite deployment mechanisms. We would like to see citizen scientists explore some of those possibilities.

More information on nitinol is available at Nitinol University.



Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Robotics

Citizen scientists who are interested in the Moon can find a wide range of activities. Whatever your level of ability, resources, and interest, there is a citizen-science activity you can participate in.

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Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Astronomy, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Space Adventures, SpaceX Tags:

Robert Staehle of JPL gave a presentation on Interplanetary CubeSats at NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts On March 28. The interplanetary CubeSat idea is rapidly catching on, as demonstrated by the Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop scheduled to take place at MIT on May 29-30 with NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck as keynote speaker.


(You can view the presentation at if the YouTube video is unavailable.)

The interplanetary CubeSat concept is evolving rapidly. Staehle assumes that solar sails are arequired technology for propulsion. Another option has already emerged, however. The Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’ has created a small ion engine for CubeSat-sized payloads. Theion drive weighs only 200 g including enough propellant to send a CubeSat from Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars


Planetary missions may soon be within reach of citizen scientists. Just getting a CubeSat into Earth orbit remains a problem, though. NASA’s Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge prize may help. A number of companies are already working on innovative solutions to the problem, including Premiere Space Systems (Nanolaunch) and XCOR Aerospace.

Written by Astro1 on March 31st, 2012 , Innovation, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Planetary science

Citizen scientists who are interested in nanosatellites should check out two upcoming workshops. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Events, Nanosatellites

Project NOTSNIK is one of the obscure footnotes of space history.

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Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Space History Tags:

Rocket City Space Pioneers and its partner Spaceflight Services are offering a unique opportunity for small payload developers: a chance to share a ride to the Moon. Or at least, to lunar orbit.

Rideshare payload stack

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Written by Astro1 on February 22nd, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

The Space Hardware Club is a group of students at the University of Huntsville who are building a nanosatellite, one of 33 selected by NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative as candidates to fly within the next two years. (See NASA selects CubeSat candidates.)

The student-built satellite, called Charger-1, is an engineering project designed to test power and communication systems.  The satellite is being built as an extracurricular project with no class credit – a shining example of citizen science.

Paul Gattis of the Huntstville Times has more information here.

Written by Astro1 on February 19th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Nanosatellites

Kyle Godin, a graduate student at Stevens Institute of Technology, has demonstrating a new solid-state thruster for low-cost satellites. His work has now been recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which awarded Godin the Abe M. Zarem Award for Distinguished Achievement in Aeronautics. This development will be of potential interest to citizen scientists, as the press release notes:

Thanks to the development of microsatellites, universities and independents can now launch research craft for tens of thousands of dollars, rather than the multi-million dollar price tags of traditional launches. This new class of satellite is democratizing outer space exploration and offering NASA new opportunities to study little-known regions of the Earth’s atmosphere.

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Written by Astro1 on February 19th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation, Nanosatellites