Makers Launch to Space in Global Balloon Challenge

A photo submitted by a GSBC team (Credit: Flaig)

A photo taken by one of the GSBC teams (Credit: Flaig)

Earlier this year we posted about the Global Space Balloon Challenge (GSBC), an event that encouraged people from all ages and backgrounds around the world to build, launch, and recover their own high-altitude balloons.

The launch weekend took place April 18–21. To date, 52 teams from 17 countries have successfully launched their balloons to the edge of space — everyone from elementary school students in the U.S., high school students in Norway and university students in Brazil, to enthusiasts in Hong Kong and Australia. And though a number of teams had to delay due to weather and other circumstances they are due to launch in the upcoming weeks. Pictures and data have started flooding in, and we’re busy working with industry partners to select winners for the various prize categories.

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Participants came from a range of backgrounds. On one end of the scale there were teams that had never launched a balloon before and were looking for a fun way to learn new skills, while on the other end there were veteran ballooning teams with hundreds of launches and decades of experience under their belts. The best thing about high-altitude ballooning is that it’s an accessible project for everyone, regardless of experience. The majority of teams built their payloads using Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s connected to sensors, smartphones/tablets with data-logging apps, cameras hacked with high-capacity batteries, off-the-shelf GPS trackers, and 3D-printed parts.

With broad challenge categories such as “best design” and “best experiment,” teams were given the creative freedom to dream up innovative new designs. There are many challenges in launching and recovering a balloon, including uncertainty of the landing site. This year’s GSBC saw a number of teams propose and prototype new ideas to solve these problems, including an automated parachute-steering mechanism to allow the balloon to land near the closest road, and a remote-control plane streaming first-person perspective video to a controller on the ground.


Team Milo - Cali IMG_2374 84177_burst_3

Teams have reported that the GSBC has brought together local communities, school districts, and even families! Incredible stories have been coming out of the challenge — for example, a team in Canada that got together their entire family to fulfill their 2-year-old’s request for his Lightning McQueen toy to “be a real astronaut,” and a teacher in Ireland working with her elementary school children that shared a story of their balloon landing in the ocean before the Irish Coast Guard willingly recovered it for them, fully functional.


2014 is the first year of the GSBC, with plans for it to be an annual event. Preparation has already begun for next year’s challenge, which looks to attract teams from more countries and to offer more challenge categories. We also hope to partner with education groups to see how the GSBC or balloon projects in general could be integrated into curriculum at various levels.

All the photos in this post are submitted by GSBC participants. If you want to capture your own great photos from near space, there’s no reason why you can’t do it before next year’s challenge! Check out our gallery or Facebook page for inspiration from our teams, and the GSBC website tutorials for every step of the build process. We’re also trying to build the ballooning community, so free to ask questions on our forum or contact any of us for help!


The Global Space Balloon Challenge would like to thank Stanford University, the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Arduino, and Sparkfun for making this event possible.

Yuri’s Night: The DIY Space Holiday


Yuri's Night 2011 in SPACE!

The crew of Expedition 27 celebrate Yuri’s Night in 2011.
Commander Dmitry Kondratyev and Flight Engineers Andrey Borisenko, Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman, Alexander Samokutyaev, Paolo Nespoli and Ron Garan. Photo credit: NASA

When I think of “DIY”, I typically think of physical objects. Maybe you do too. At it’s core, the DIY culture is about creating things yourself instead of waiting on someone else to do it for you. Like any community, some people think in a bit bigger and broader terms. The team behind Yuri’s Night created a world-wide space party and sparked a global holiday celebrating human spaceflight.

Yuri’s Night is a grassroots global space holiday celebrated around the world every April 12. The date is a dual anniversary in the history of space exploration: Yuri Gagarin launched on the first human spaceflight on April 12, 1961; and the first launch of a US space shuttle was exactly 20 years later when Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981.

Yuri's Night LA 2013

Yuri’s Night LA 2013

Initially conceived as a single event in LA by three friends, the idea for a “party for space” quickly spread to all corners of the planet, via the Space Generation Advisory Council to the UN. Over the years, a team and a non-profit were built to keep a website running, providing publicity and resources for free (logos, music, ideas), and encourage individuals around the planet to create their own unique celebration of human spaceflights. Parties have been organized on all seven continents, on the International Space Station (see above!), and even on Mars via the Curiosity rover.

Mad scientists in Foot Pound Force

Science + Music in Huntsville, AL.
Photo Credit: David Hewitt

“What I love about Yuri’s Night is that it gives everyone a chance to connect with the awe and wonder of space exploration in any way that is right for them,” says Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, co-founder of Yuri’s Night. “No matter who you are, what you do, or where you are, you can be inspired to host a party.”

Events have ranged from baking moon-shaped cakes and a home viewing of Spaceballs to a 10,000-person hip-hop concert spectacle. There was an event at a custard stand with telescopes. NASA centers around the country have gotten into the spirit too, collaborating with the costumed stormtroopers of the 501st Legion and hosting gigantic art works from Burning Man groups. Even daycare centers and museums have gotten into the mix with space-themed events. In 2009, the TV show Ace of Cakes showcased a cake in the shape of Jupiter created for a Yuri’s Night event at the visitor’s center for NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Sputnik helmet at Yuri's Night Bay Area 2007

Bay Area Maker
Photo Credit: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

“Millions of people have come together in wonder and excitement to dream about where we’re going, explore where we are, and celebrate our spaceflight heritage,” says operations director and master of electrons Jeffrey Alles. “And we do it all on a shoestring budget with an all-volunteer staff.” The Yuri’s Night volunteer team keeps the web servers running and a Twitter account going, but the actual events are all organized individually.

“Anyone can have a Yuri’s Night,” says executive director Ryan Korbick. “It’s like Saint Patrick’s Day for space with the intent of bringing people of mixed backgrounds together to celebrate human spaceflight with an iconic story at its roots.”

“We are open-source, crowd-sourced, and decentralized,” he says. “We allow creative ideas to flourish and after 14 years there’s still no way to predict the imaginative events we will see next or the exotic locations helping rock the planet.”

If you want to show off your creativity, there’s still time to pull together some ideas, grab your friends, and have your own Yuri’s Night party!

Celebrating Yuri’s Night at the South Pole

Celebrating Yuri’s Night at the South Pole
Photo credit: Kris Amundson

Full disclosure: I proudly serve as one of those unpaid volunteers on the Board of Directors for Yuri’s Night and help organize events in Washington, D.C.

Q&A: KickSat’s Zac Manchester and Andy Filo


KickSat's Zac Manchester poses with the mothership.

KickSat’s Zac Manchester poses with the mothership.

Back in 2011, Zac Manchester launched a Kickstarter for hundreds of small satellites, to be programmed by backers. The Sprites, as these little “chipsats” are called, would be packed into a CubeSat, via a mechanism built by Andy Filo, and launched aboard SpaceX’s CRS-3 rocket. The project got delayed, then delayed again. But with an official launch date slated for this coming Monday, we caught up with Manchester and Filo to talk about citizen space exploration, the maker movement, and how they work together.

Editor’s note: The KickSat team is looking for people to listen to their satellites next week. The Sprites will only be aloft for a few days, and they want as many data points as possible. On GitHub, Manchester has posted instructions for how to build a ground station and track Sprites on your own. It’s easy, he says; get involved!

KickSat is scheduled to launch on Monday. How do you feel about it? Andy Filo: We’re keeping our fingers crossed. Anything can happen. We’re very excited. The vehicle we’re on, CRS-3, is a really cool vehicle to be on, but it’s also had a lot of delays. So we’re about a year out from where we’d originally hoped to launch from.

Zac Manchester: There have been many, many delays. This is just kind of par for the course in aerospace. Launches always get delayed, that’s just the way it goes. It’s not really anybody’s fault, it’s just, technical things come up.

Space is still hard and exotic and all that. And it’s still kind of a big deal. It’s not the sort of daily or even weekly or monthly occurrence where things go off on regular schedules. There’s a few launches a year and they’re often fraught with all kinds of uncertainty and crazy things happen and that’s the way it is.

I think that we’re hopefully getting to a place now where these things are more regular, becoming more routine, and things are getting easier. That’s definitely happening with a lot of the new commercial space stuff. Not that there hasn’t been commercial space stuff for decades, but I think there’s a new focus on it, and new types of people getting involved. So it’s going to become more and more routine, I think, which is a good thing.

People like makers are seeing this become an actual possibility. ZM: Yeah, makers, and there’s now a whole bunch of Silicon Valley startups. There’s more players getting involved, and I think that is going to lead to lower costs and more frequent launches. With CubeSats, which is what we built for KickSat, there’s kind of a standard in terms of what the thing has to look like, the dimensions, how much it weighs, and then there’s also standardized testing. The way I see this going, you buy a kit and you build your little satellite and then you send it off in the mail and it gets launched by somebody who will integrate it with a bunch of other tiny satellites and launch them together.

It’s not an easy process to go through, and I think that streamlining that and making it work better is going to be an important thing in the next few years, as more people try to do things in space.

AF: The one takeaway from everybody who’s gone through the process is, space is hard. People are currently talking about, how do we reinvent space, how do we make space more accessible? The programming is set up to be very Arduino-like. The schematics and the data to build the satellites are posted on the Github website, so if someone’s ambitious and they want to build them, they actually can.

How did you get involved? What’s in your background that made you want to create something like this? ZM: I’m a long-time space nerd. I got a degree in applied physics at Cornell, and I got involved in this stuff as an undergrad, as a junior. This ChipSat idea has been floating around for about 10 years, and our group at Cornell has been kind of pioneering it. I came in at the right time when the technology was just getting to the point where we could actually build these things, cheaply, with off the shelf parts — mostly because of smartphones. Almost all the parts on the ChipSat are from the consumer electronics industry; they’re the sorts of things that are on smartphones. And most of these parts didn’t exist more than five years ago, so it’s just the right timing where there’s all these sensors available, all these things that you can buy for $2 on SparkFun, and they’re just the right kind you need for a satellite.

AF: I did the mechanicals of the KickSat, coming up with how the actual KickSats would be held into the frame, how they would be deployed, and even how to spin them up. We actually used the antenna as a spring that deploys the ChipSat and puts a spin on it. It keeps them sun facing. This has been a technique that’s been used in satellites since the early days. A spring mechanism is a cheap and reliable way to store energy, and to impart spin, to give it stability so it’s just not in a tumble when it comes out.

In our case, we have solar cells, and we want them to be sun-facing. And also by having it in a stable manner, it’s radio transmission is relatively consistent, as opposed to being in a random tumble. The mission profile is to launch the mothership and have it deploy in a stable manner, and then to deploy the ChipSats. They have a magnetometer and a gyroscope on them, so what they measure is any magenetic flux that’s changing in the upper atmosphere (low earth orbit). And there’s drag from our atmosphere, so even though you’re in space, atmospheric drag is still a significant factor.

It hasn’t deployed yet, but at least on the ground phase and the testing phase, we were able to leverage 3D printing to come up with a deployment mechanism that would be reliable, that could withstand the vacuum and the temperature extremes of space. Sprite-NoBackground On Kickstarter, you raised nearly three times your goal. Did you have to adapt to be able to incorporate a whole bunch of extra sprites? ZM: Yeah, we built a bigger satellite is basically what happened. Initially, we benchmarked the CubeSat standard, which is what KickSat is — it’s sort of a mothership for all the sprites. That standard comes in units; a 1U or one-unit CubeSat is 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. They go in increments of that 1U size, so you can have a 1U, a 2U, a 3U CubeSat. When we ended up with the extra money, we built a 3U CubeSat instead, and fit more sprites in.

AF: Originally, every launch vehicle had dead weight in it, used to trim the flight characteristics. Usually it’s a piece of lead or titanium or something, and sometimes it’s ejected, sometimes it’s not. But someone said Hey, instead of carrying up dead weight, why don’t we carry up really small satellites that weigh the same amount? So that’s where the whole CubeSat and the form factor and everything came up: Why don’t you take up something for the betterment of mankind? NASA actually mandated that every launch vehicle that they charter has the ability to deploy satellites from them.

How are people using your Sprites, or what will they be doing once they’re up there? ZM: one of my favorites was the British Interplanetary Society; a group of guys there got together and got a developer kit and came up with a pretty cool experiment. They’re taking data from a random number generator and filling the RAM on the microcontroller with that, and then reading it back a little while later, and just kind of repeatedly doing this, looking for bit flips. They’re basically turning the RAM on the microcontroller into a radiation detector.

It happens on the ground, too: High energy particles from cosmic ray-type radiation will go in and flip bits in your RAM. On the surface of the Earth, that’s very rare, but in space, when you’re out of the atmosphere and there’s more radiation, it’s much more common. They’re not using the sensors that we deliberately put on there for people to use. It was a clever little alternate usage for the hardware on there.

But still, the Sprites are pretty limited. I noticed on your Kickstarter you had mentioned doing something more elaborate in the future. Are you still thinking about a version 2.0? ZM: Oh yeah, for sure. The whole idea here is to create a general purpose, open-source platform for these tiny satellites. So I want this to become sort of like the space Arduino, if you will. It’s a platform that you can put your own sensors on and write your own code on. And it’s something that you can hack on and build yourself, like in a basement workshop, for not a lot of money.

We’re getting to a point where, in the next couple of years, it’s going to be realistic to have a sub-thousand-dollar satellite mission, so that a hobbyist or high school class could get a kit and put together something like one of these, and get it launched. I just think putting it in more people’s hands, and having people hack on it, and mess around with it, and come up with new ideas, is a powerful thing. Right now it’s really hard to put things in space, as evidenced by our experience and the experience of a lot of other people who have been trying to launch amateur satellites for the last several years. Like I said, it’s not a routine thing, it’s still kind of an exotic thing, and it’s expensive.

AF: That’s why we’re doubly excited about this. They’re both demonstration missions. The CRF-3 first stage is going to demonstrate reusability. It’s not just a one-shot component that is going to be recycled. These components are actually designed to be flown 10, 20, 30 times before they wear out.

Basically, it’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX vision to have a 100 percent reusable launch vehicle. And so the first stage actually has functional landing legs on it. When it’s launched, the first stage will actually do a gentle return to earth.

Their vision is that it will lower launch costs by a factor of 200. That’s why we’re excited about it — what we’re doing is making space accessible by using Moore’s Law. He’s making space accessible by lowering the cost by having reusable vehicles.


Your Own Satellite: 7 Things to Know Before You Go


All I ask is a successful launch, a clean radio signal, and a life just long enough to achieve that goal.

If high-altitude balloons just aren’t high-altitude enough, if you feel frustrated by the pace of space development, or if you just really, really like rockets and hardware, I think launching your own satellite is an excellent decision. But first, what do you want your satellite to do? Here are 7 key things you need to know before you launch your personal spacecraft into orbit at 17,000 miles an hour.

Aurora viewed from the ISS in low earth orbit, image courtesy NASA

Aurora viewed from the ISS in low earth orbit, image courtesy NASA

What Is a Picosatellite?

Picosatellites, by definition, are extremely small, lightweight satellites. Any picosatellite will tend to have these core components:

  • An antenna
  • A radio transmitter for uplinking commands or downloading your data
  • A computer-on-a-chip such as an Arduino or a Basic-X24
  • A power system, most often solar cells plus a battery plus a power bus
  • Sensors

The progenitor of the pico class is the CubeSat, an open source architecture that lets you pack anything you want into the 10cm × 10cm × 10cm cube.

The CubeSat is a satellite as cute as a pumpkin. Forbes reported on one vendor, Pumpkin Inc., that supplies premade CubeSats. CubeSat itself is a specification, not a piece of off-the-shelf hardware, so Pumpkin decided to prebuild kits and sell them. If you have your own rocket to launch your CubeSat on, for $7,500 they’ll sell you a CubeSat kit.

This neatly parallels InterOrbital Systems’ TubeSat. InterOrbital Systems (IOS) has the edge in price/performance, as they throw the launch in for the same cost. But it looks like neither IOS nor Pumpkin provide premades, just kits. So there’s still hobbyist work involved, but kits remove the need for engineering and just leave the fun part of assembly and integration.

TubeSat and CubeSat, two variants of a picosatellite, with quarters shown for scale

TubeSat and CubeSat, two variants of a picosatellite, with quarters shown for scale

TubeSats and CubeSats are slightly different, of course, and I am insanely pleased that both are advancing the idea of platform kits. This is a great step in the commodification of space research. Even if the mini CubeSat looks eerily similar to a Hellraiser Lemarchand box.

How Much Does It Cost to Launch?

If you build a CubeSat, securing a rocket to launch it on is not difficult, merely expensive. A typical CubeSat launch cost is estimated at $40,000. There are several commercial providers promising future CubeSat rockets, assuming they complete development. Various NASA and International Space Station projects accept some proposals using the CubeSat architecture. There are more companies entering the private launch business each year, so prospects for getting a launch are becoming more robust.

The TubeSat architecture from InterOrbital Systems is an alternative schema. Currently only supported by InterOrbital, it is very cost-effective. You get the schematics, main hardware components, and a launch on their still-in-development rocket for the single price of $8,000. A TubeSat uses a slightly longer hexagonal architecture, 12cm in length and 4cm in diameter.

You can also work with a custom architecture if you have access to a rocket launch (through a college or university, perhaps), but currently the primary two players are the open CubeSat spec and the private TubeSat alternative.

Where Is Orbit?

Where will your picosatellite go? It’s nearly a given that your picosatellite will go to low earth orbit (LEO), a broad band ranging from about 150km up to perhaps 600km. This is the region that also has many science satellites and the International Space Station (ISS). It is in and below the ionosphere, the very, very thin part of the atmosphere that also coincides with much of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The Earth’s magnetic field shields us from the Sun’s most fierce activity. High-energy particles, flare emissions, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs; basically blobs of Sun-stuff) get shunted by the magnetic field before they can reach ground. Where the magnetic field lines dip near the poles, this energy expresses itself as the aurora.

Low earth orbit view of an aurora (image ISS006E18372, courtesy of NASA)

Low earth orbit view of an aurora (image ISS006E18372, courtesy of NASA)

Above the ionosphere, the space environment can be hostile because of solar activity. Below it, the radiation risks are much lower. This is why the ISS is kept in LEO. LEO is, at heart, about as safe as space can get. It’s also where your picosatellite is likely to live.

A typical LEO orbit has about a 90-minute period. That is, it rotates around the Earth once every 90 minutes, doing about 15 orbits per day. Orbits can be positioned near the Earth’s equator (equatorial orbits) or loop from the North to South Pole (polar orbits). Similarly, orbits can be nearly circular, or be highly eccentric—coming closer to the Earth at one end of the orbit, and then moving far away at the other.

How Long Will My Satellite Last?

Your orbit is entirely determined by what your rocket provider has sold you. At the hobbyist level, you’re going to most likely get a standard 250km or so nearly circular orbit, either equatorial or polar. Such an orbit lasts (because of drag by the tenuous ionosphere) from 3 to 16 weeks before the satellite will suffer a fiery reentry.

At picosatellite masses, this means your satellite will go up and not return. You have less than three months to gather data. The picosatellite will then, essentially, vaporize neatly upon reentry (no space junk risk!)

How’s the Weather Up There?

LEO Conditions and Viability

The ionosphere is called that because it is a very thin plasma of electrically charged atoms (ions) and electrons, due to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. Technically it extends from about 50km up to over 1,000km (thanks Wikipedia!), but LEO starts at 150km — below that, you can’t maintain a stable orbit. The ionosphere, as mentioned, is driven by solar activity. The portion facing the Sun has more ionization; also, solar activity can drive its behavior strongly. There are also dips in the magnetic field line, leading to radiation increases at lower altitudes. We’ve mentioned the poles, and regions such as the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) also have field lines that dip lower.

If you’re sending up sensors, you’ll want to ensure a couple things:

  • They have a sensitivity level appropriate to the level of signal you’re trying to measure.
  • They have a dynamic range that lets you extract meaningful data.

LEO Temperatures

A metal plate in LEO will cycle from –170°C to 123°C depending on its Sun face and its time in sunlight. If your picosatellite is spinning, this will even out the heat distribution a bit, but that’s the range to assume. An orbit has approximately half its time in sunlight and the other half in Earth shade, so the temperature behavior is worth modeling.

Since the picosatellite is spinning, this range is fortunately smaller (as heat has time to distribute and dissipate), and with a 90-minute orbit, you should cycle through three ranges: too cold to register; transition regions where the sensor returns valid, slowly changing data; and possibly oversaturating at the high end. You can add a heater if necessary—satellites have used heaters and coolers depending on the instrument and facing.

Therefore, a thermal sensor (like a microDig Hot brand sensor) that covers –40°C up to 100°C will suffice. The range of –40°C to 100°C is a feasible area to measure. In any event, past that range, the rest of the satellite electronics may have trouble.

LEO Light

Similarly, a light-detecting sensor, for a spinning picosatellite, is likely to return just a binary signal: super-bright Sun in view and Sun not in view. So all that it will measure is the timing of when the Sun is in view. The function of the light sensors will be largely binary, to catch Sun-dark cycles as it spins, as well as the overall day/night cycle of the orbit. If there is a slight tumble to the satellite, all the better. These light sensors will provide a basic measure of the satellite’s position and tumbling. If you want to measure actual light levels, your design will have to ensure the Sun doesn’t saturate your detector.

LEO Magnetic Field

The ionosphere has a field strength on the order of 0.3–0.6 gauss, with fluctuations of 5%. For a polar orbit, you’ll have higher variability and higher magnetic fields than an equatorial orbit (as the Earth’s magnetic field lines dip near the poles, hence the auroras). If you want to measure fluctuation, not the field strength, you need to capture 0.06–0.1 gauss signals. A $10 Hall effect sensor plus an op-amp could measure variations down to as low as 0.06 gauss if there’s no large external magnetic field. Below that, the noise from your sensor’s circuits, not the sensor, will likely be the limiting factor.

What About Particle (Radiation) Damage?

The mission life is short (less than three months), so you don’t need to worry about cumulative damage. I used to do radiation damage models back in school, and it turns out that modern electronics are surprisingly robust on short time scales. You primarily will have single-event upsets (SEPs) that scramble a sensor or computer, but since you likely don’t need 100% uptime, this shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, glitches will add interesting character to your derived data. Should you encounter, say, a solar storm, it’ll be interesting to see how the sensors deal with it, either with saturation or with spurious signals. A proportional counter or ersatz equivalent (like a microDig Reach) can measure these particle counts.

And finally, the most important thing to know:

What Is My Mission?

Just what the heck do you want your picosatellite to do? You can neatly break out the typical picosatellite choices into science missions, engineering missions, and artworks. A science payload measures stuff. An engineering payload tests hardware or software. An art project instantiates a high concept. We will visit each.


On a science mission, your picosatellite will measure something. Science is about measurement at its heart. There are three types of missions you can do: pointing, in-situ, and engineering builds.

A pointing mission is like a telescope. Your picosatellite points at an object of interest—the Sun, the Moon, stars, the sky background, or the Earth—and observes it. Note that pointing at the Earth requires a license—not hard to get, but privacy is protected in hobby space.

You can point randomly, but that doesn’t seem very useful. You can set a survey mode, where your picosatellite is given a specific orientation in its orbit so that, each orbit, it sweeps across the sky in a predictable fashion. Or, you can do active pointing, making the picosatellite look where you want.

Active pointing is fairly challenging. You need to know your position very accurately. Using inertial references—knowledge of the initial orbit plus internal prediction of how the satellite is traveling—is inexact for sensor pointing purposes. Therefore, pointing typically requires some sort of star-trackers. These are two or more wide-field telescopes that image the sky and compare it to an onboard catalog of known bright reference stars.

Star tracking is technically complex, and likely beyond the weight and design limitations of a typical picosatellite. However, see “Engineering!” below, for more on this.

A more common picosatellite science usage is in-situ measurements. This is the use of sensors that measure the region the satellite is in without requiring pointing. A thermometer is a perfect example of an in-situ detector. It measures the temperature, and you don’t need to precisely point it to know it works.

Other in-situ measurements from LEO can include the electric and magnetic field in the ionosphere, light from the Sun or reflected Earth glow, measuring the ionospheric density, or tracking the kinematics of your orbit and positioning (how you are moving).

Or maybe you don’t want to measure something scientifically, you just want to build stuff. That’s engineering.


An engineering picosatellite uses the platform to try out some new space hardware concepts, or to give you practice in building your own variants of known space hardware.

You can make a picosatellite to test out any of the hardware components. A new power system, a new positioning method, a new type of radio or relay communications, new sensors—really any component of the satellite can be built and improved.

Three ounces of flyable instrumentation

Three ounces of flyable instrumentation

Some picosatellite projects have involved testing—on a small scale—new satellite propulsion concepts, ranging from ion engines to solar sails. Want to test an inflatable space station in miniature, or see if you can make a picosatellite that unfolds to form a large ham radio bounce point? Build it!

Another engineering motive can be to test specific components: for example, comparing a custom electronics rig against a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) component to see if satellites (of any size) can be made more cost-effective. Or you can test new data compression methods or alternative methods of doing on-board operations.

Innovation in operations is a subset of engineering goals worth exploring further. Picosatellites could be used to test the coordination of a constellation of satellites. They can be test beds for orbital mechanics studies, or lessons in coordinated satellite operations. As the cheapest way to get access to space, they are excellent test beds for prototyping new ways of doing satellite work before moving to million-dollar missions.

Art Concept!

Finally, there are concept pieces. My own “Project Calliope” TubeSat gathers in-situ measurements of the ionosphere and transmits them to Earth as music, a process called sonification. The intent is to return a sense of the rhythm and activity level of space, rather than numeric data, so we can get a sense of just how the Sun-Earth system behaves.

You aren’t a real mission until you have your own flight patch.

You aren’t a real mission until you have your own flight patch.

You can launch a satellite to do anything. Send ashes to space. Ship up a Himalayan prayer flag. Launch your titanium wedding ring into orbit. Any art, music, or art/music/science hybrid idea is welcome because it’s your satellite. Just give it a purpose or utility beyond just the spectacle of being able to launch your own satellite.

Defining science (courtesy

Defining science (courtesy

Solve a Decadal Problem for All of Humanity

Here’s a design exercise that asks you to invent a satellite. The point is not whether you can build, but whether you can conceive and outline an idea that is worth building in the first place.

Choose one of the decadal goals for Earth observing, heliophysics, astronomy, or planetary science, and design a mission concept to fulfill that task using a small satellite platform—NASA SMEX or smaller.

Invent your satellite and make a five-minute pitch that you would present to NASA to ask for funding. Limit yourself to a satellite with one or two (at most) instruments. Here are some decadal reference links:


One example of a decadal goal, from Earth observing, might be:

Changing ice sheets and sea level. Will there be catastrophic collapse of the major ice sheets, including those of Greenland and the West Antarctic and, if so, how rapidly will this occur? What will be the time patterns of sea-level rise as a result?

A good pitch might include:

  • A mission summary chart (type/wavelength/goal/who/orbit)
  • History of any past missions that tackled this
  • List of desired instrument loadout: what instrument types and what they each measure plus whether or not it needs focusing optics
  • Resolution range per detector (spatial, spectral, timing, brightness)
  • Cost estimate, based on comparison/analogy to similar missions

To evaluate a good pitch, consider whether:

  • Your goal and satellite are plausible.
  • Your approach clearly seems to be the right approach for the task.

This is the skill of both business and academic proposals, where you must not only convince the audience that you are the right person for the task, but also that the task itself is worth doing!


Building your own picosatellite is not just a means to an end, but a worthwhile goal itself. Even if you never launch it, the skills and experience you gain in making your own real satellite can be an awesome experience.


This article is adapted from DIY Satellite Platforms and DIY Instruments for Amateur Space by Sandy Antunes. This series, which also includes Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, is a deep and user-friendly resource for would-be spacecraft builders, available from the Maker Shed at Watch for the fourth book in the series, DIY Data Communication for Amateur Spacecraft, coming this summer.

Kerbal Space Program: Now with More Asteroid!



Pushing an asteroid in Kerbal Space Program.

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a space program simulator game that’s the closest most of us are going to get to running our own space agency. For those of you who haven’t heard of KSP, it’s awesome, addictive and actually pretty accurate — at least the orbital dynamics and other physics, if not the engineering. And it just got better with a new Asteroid Redirect Mission, created in collaboration with NASA.

Introducing the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in Kerbal Space Program

It’s not just amateur space geeks playing KSP. Reports are that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is obsessed with the game,

“…half of JPL is playing that game right now,” Douglas Ellison, NASA JPL

There’s no better — or more interesting — space simulator out there, and now NASA has stepped in and is actually teaming with the game’s makers to improve it. Announced at the beginning of March at SXSW, the collaboration between NASA and the game’s producers was released last week.

A play-through of the new Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Part of the publicity surrounding NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge program, the new update to the game offers players a chance to embark on a virtual version of the real-world NASA mission of the same name.

While it might not directly help NASA to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” there’s a lot to be gained from playing Kerbal Space Program, because there’s real science behind the actions of the bumbling, cartoonish Kerbals. This is a game that can be taken as seriously as you want to take it. Now with added asteroids, it should not only encourage makers to contribute better ways to hunt for asteroids, but also help to engage the maker movement in NASA’s grand challenge to figure out what to do about any space rocks that threaten Earth.

5 Cool Participatory Space Projects


From discovering supermassive black holes to saving Earth from deadly asteroids, here are five ways you can make scientific discoveries and actively contribute to space exploration.

Credit: NEAR Project, NLR, JHUAPL, Goddard SVS, NASA

Photo: NEAR Project, NLR, JHUAPL, Goddard SVS, NASA

Asteroid Data Hunter Detecting asteroids is one of the most important steps in saving Earth from potentially deadly impacts. NASA needs your help to develop algorithms that can better identify asteroids and eliminate false positives. Asteroid Data Hunter is a contest for programmers to design such an algorithm to sort through data from telescopes on the ground. Better detection methods give everyone on Earth a fighting chance to deflect asteroids before they hit.

Credit: Tim Serge/Flickr

Photo: Tim Serge/Flickr

University Rover Challenge The University Rover Challenge is your chance to build the next generation of Mars rovers that could one day work alongside astronauts. This annual competition in the Utah desert is open to university students around the world. The rovers of the future may look and work entirely differently than they do today (imagine robotic tumbleweeds or shape-shifting exoskeletons), and it’s up to you to design them.

Hungarian Google Lunar X-Prize Rover Puli together with Aouda.X Mars spacesuit. (c) OeWF (Katja Zanella-Kux)

Hungarian Google Lunar X-Prize Rover Puli together with Aouda.X Mars spacesuit. (c) OeWF (Katja Zanella-Kux)

PolAres Here’s a chance to help develop a body of research and strategies for future human Mars surface expeditions. The PolAres program is operated by the Austrian Space Forum, an organization that helps conduct Mars analog research through different disciplines, including robotics. Professionals and volunteers work with space organizations to do research and run educational programs focused on space technology — your work will help educate others on how to prepare for sending humans to Mars.

Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O'Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Photo: NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Galaxy Zoo Radio Astronomers are looking to better understand how supermassive black holes form and evolve over time, and you can help. While we can’t visibly observe a black hole, we can find the massive jets of cosmic material that they spew out in the form of radio wavelengths. The astronomers at Galaxy Zoo Radio rely on human eyes to distinguish between images from radio and infrared telescopes — like an interstellar game of “spot the difference.”

Credit: AMSAT-UK, Wouter Weggelaar PA3WEG

Photo: AMSAT-UK, Wouter Weggelaar PA3WEG

Citizens In Space Ever dreamed of being able to launch something into space? Citizens In Space has an open call for experiments to launch on a small satellite carried by XCOR’s suborbital rocketplane. Winners could be astrobiology experiments or searches for new space phenomena, or any creative, genuine experiment, as long as it fits in a CubeSat. Better still, Citizens In Space is also seeking a citizen astronaut to oversee the payload deployment from the flight.

Insatiable for more awesomeness? is a directory of even more ways to participate in space exploration.

Why Care About DIY Space?


Next week we launch a week of DIY space content—projects, tutorials, and ideas that we hope will have you looking to the stars—and running to your workshop. We’ll be featuring articles on make-your-own rockets, weather balloons, satellites, and DIY astrophotography. We’ll even tell you how to make your own space suit and astronaut ice cream.  NASA contractor and MAKE contributor Matt Reyes will be guest editing so you know it’s going to be a blast (off).

As a warm-up, Sandy Antunes, author of DIY Satellite Platforms, DIY Instruments for Amateur Space, Surviving Orbit the DIY Way, and the forthcoming DIY Data Communications for Amateur Spacecraft, asks the question: Why should we care about DIY space? As you’ll read below and in the week to come, there’s never been a better time to be a citizen space explorer. We hope to inspire you to explore our galaxy and those yet unknown. If you make a discovery or have a space project to share, please let us know at 

–Stett Holbrook, MAKE senior editor

DIY space mixes the known and the unknown, requires a good idea but moves past it, and then hurls it into one of the harshest environments ever to see if it survives. Over the past three years, we have shifted from asking whether amateur space is possible and instead moved to the fundamental question of what will you do and why are you doing it. We’re at a point where the tech is plentiful and information is exchanged freely.pinkstripeysocks_cardboard_space_shuttle_01

The truly tricky part of DIY space isn’t the space part. It’s that, by the time you read anything, someone else has already pushed things further, built something more clever, or made something hard, simple.

DIY culture is an awesome mix of sharing things that work and fighting each other to prove the impossible. Everyone helps newcomers enter the DIY world, riffs off each other, and pushes each other to excel all at the same time.

DIY is more than ideas, but certainly a unique idea is a treasure. In this, there’s a self-promoting tendency of DIYers each trying to claim ‘first’ for their project. I say let us– every new incremental step moves us all forward, and a little egotism can be a good motivator in DIY culture. Just be careful to maintain balance in understanding that your new idea is built on a shared culture, that even mavericks are boosted by the efforts of others. Do that, and you can score any new ‘firsts’ you can dream up.

Or, simply enjoy building something yourself, with or without novelty. If it’s new for you, that’s new enough. Just as the ISS NanoRacks deployment program pushed out 33 new CubeSats in a span of a few weeks–I guarantee not all of them are ‘ideas never flown by humanity.’ But equally guaranteed is each is new for the DIYers and universities and small groups that built the satellites.

What distinguishes DIYers from spectators is we move past the idea into actually building and executing our mad schemes. For space, it’s worth understanding what Chris Scolese (the NASA/GSFC Center Director) meant by stating that integration and test is the critical path for success. This is both the key and missing piece for DIY space to become more mature. Integration at its core is just taking stuff that works separately, and getting them to play nice with each other. Testing is either the coolest or most boring part of DIY. Cool, in that you get to try to break your new stuff; boring, in that you have to do it over and over. Embrace both, so when your project hits space, it succeeds.

Participating in DIY space doesn’t require that everything push the envelope. Just mixing known solutions yields coolness. The ISSAbove project takes an ordinary Raspberry Pi, some known software solutions for predicting orbits using data fetched from the web, and turns it into DIY coolness by making a box that lights up when the ISS is above your house. Folks are taking ground-learned solutions for constellations and swarms of robots and copters and starting to apply them to satellites. Other folks are simply working to make it easier to communicate and operate space stuff. DIY operates brilliantly when taking cross-disciplinary ideas or simply in combining known stuff in a way no one combined it before.

Don’t worry if this makes space seem ordinary. Space is still a really hard target to hit. Space is a hostile environment, one of the big three; space, ocean, and inside the human body all share weird mixes of pressure problems and materials behaving oddly and combined with sheer inaccessibility and the fact you can’t really fix mistakes once they happen. The tech is there, but the key to space is realizing you have to execute your project really, really well because you have only one shot. There’s no post-launch tweaking or second chances.

There are so many areas where DIY space is really active. Obviously, actually building and hurling DIY satellites into the void is hot and gets a lot of press. It’s not just tech demos, either. Folks are starting to tackle science problems using pico- and nano-satellites, going to orbit to gather ionospheric data or remove orbital debris or spot asteroids. There’s a LunarCubes movement tackling the need for nanosat propulsion to get past Low-Earth Orbit and visit the moon, asteroids, planets. And of course PocketQubes and sprite concepts are actually flying and proving that we can send satellites that are smaller than ever yet do 100 percent of what’s needed.

DIY space also isn’t just space. Efforts at building up a stable (often open source) infrastructure in terms of hardware, radio work, and ground stations is quieter, but growing just as much. Space awareness– projects that listen to space, look at space data, or connect us on the ground with what’s going up outside our Earth in a meaningful way– is starting to heat up as DIYers use clever methods to tap into existing space-based data. As the DIY culture builds, we’re seeing STEAM efforts that add ‘art’ to the usual STEM approach, which draws more people into what we do.

In short, DIY has it all as a mix of proven and new, first tries and sustained efforts, tech and science and art, all powered by people and going to space. It’s a good time to look past Earth, and everyone is invited along for the ride.