SJ startup to launch crowdfunded satellite into space

May 9, 2013 7:07:29 PM PDT
Silicon Valley is famous for the startups that have been launched in garages; Hewlett Packard and Apple, to name the most prominent two. Now some young men are using their garage to build a satellite and launch it into space.

Hunched over a small table in a cluttered garage, they're feverishly working toward a tight deadline.

"We are replacing the batteries," engineer Rouslan Dimitrov said. "Um, these ones are not charged and we are not sure whether they hold enough charge for us."

There are countless variables in play. And they only have one chance to get it right.

"We're building a CubeCat," Southern Stars founder Tim DeBenedictis said. "It's a satellite that will launch into orbit in October of 2013."

This little science project will blast off on a rocket and fly high above the earth. It's powered by the sun and packs a tiny radio and three cameras.

"You'll be able to request a picture of the earth and the next time the satellite goes over that part of the earth, it'll take the picture and transmit it down to earth and send it back to your phone."

DeBenedictis is an app developer and a space nerd. When his last app did so well and he quit his day job, he decided his next project would boldly go where no app has gone before.

"It's about doing something that previously only big companies or national governments could do," DeBenedictis said.

He rounded up a team and created SkyCube. The tiny satellite will orbit the earth for about six months, sending back tweets and pictures to people willing to pay a dollar for the privilege.

"This is code for 'hi, world,' so that's what I'm transmitting right now," satellite firmware engineer Chris Phoenix said.

Now, some of the parts in here are off-the-shelf, but the SkyCube team had to build a lot of things themselves, like these solar panels, which they literally built from scraps to save tens of thousands of dollars.

"We had to measure all the solar cells, pick the best ones," Dimitrov said.

The engineer pieced together these little, leftover solar cell triangles. They cost a mere dollar fifty each. And when the satellite is deployed, the panels unfold to charge the batteries and reveal the cameras. Then comes the tricky part.

"The physics will come later when it's tumbling through space and we have to predict the tumble," Phoenix said. "But we cannot do that until it gets up there."

The team will have to write the code that picks the perfect moment to take every picture. Then they have to get the pictures back.

"This costs about $40, so, pretty cheap," Scott Cutler said.

Cutler showed us the kit radio hobbyists can build to "listen" to the satellite. Thanks to a deal with the Navy, they can also post all its transmissions to the Internet. But all good things must come to an end, including this one.

At the end of its six-month term in space, that tiny satellite will pop out this giant balloon. This will drag it out of orbit and send it hurtling back into the atmosphere. And that's when you might catch a glimpse of it, as a fast-moving star in the night sky.

"If you're a kid who contributed something to this, like a dollar on our Kickstarter campaign, it's a pretty good wow moment at the end of the whole thing," DeBenedictis said.

But the end is only the beginning. They raised $117,000 on Kickstarter, enough to build a second satellite.

"If this works and we pull this off, this won't be the last satellite we do," DeBenedictis said. "But we'll talk about that when the time comes."


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