Overall, Darpa plans to spend $36 million on the Phoenix project, which is peanuts by U.S. military standards. But it is big money in the smallsat world, where mass production and standard forms continue to cut hardware costs dramatically. A San Francisco-based company—Pumpkin Inc.—is selling cubesat kits starting at $7,500 that can be customized depending on the capabilities needed. To date, more than a dozen have been launched, according to Andrew Kalman, the company's president and chief technology officer, who says Pumpkin is following the Apple Inc. model.
“We want to make sure that cubesats really are one of the foremost places where you can leverage the continuing advance of technology,” says Kalman. “To do that you need to recognize that you are not in the driver's seat when it comes to the technology you want to put up there. Rather, you need to be leveraging other markets which are in the driver's seat, which in this case is essentially the consumer electronics field, and take advantage of those technologies.”
When Orbital Sciences Corp. launches its first Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Va., later this summer, it will be carrying three 1U cubesats that take the consumer-electronics approach to spacecraft to new heights. Wedged into one of them will be a standard Android smartphone, with a bunch of extra batteries, in a test of whether the open-architecture electronics and commercial hardware can survive in space.
“If the platform is open, if the operating system is open, well then, almost anybody could write an app that could do something that may be beneficial to spaceflight, so you can tap into that larger community of app writers,” says Bruce Yost a project manager at Ames Research Center, where NASA's smallsat work is headquartered. “It kind of changes a lot of things that you do in aerospace.”
Another “Phonesat” version carries the innards but not the case of the Android. The work, spearheaded at Ames with funding from OCT, is not limited to smartphone software, but includes such hardware possibilities as removing the weights from the phones' “vibrate” mode and using the motors as tiny reaction wheels, says Yost.
Despite the possibilities, some areas of smallsat technology still need work, particularly in the cubesat arena, where communications is a particular problem. The Phonesats set to fly on the first Antares mission will test the smartphone computing for spaceflight apps, but the radio will be switched off because it would not work in space. Instead, cubesats rely on ham-radio frequencies for links with the ground, and that limits both contact time and bandwidth.
To tackle those problems, experts at the European Space Agency are developing an international ground-station network called the Global Educational Network for Satellite Operations (Genso), which is basically a set of software and protocols that will give cubesat operators a worldwide network of ground stations (see map).
At Ames and California's San Jose State University, preparations are underway to begin operating the Technical and Educational Satellite (TechEdSat), which was launched July 20 on Japan's third H-II Transfer Vehicle. Based on a Pumpkin cubesat-kit structure, the 1U cubesat will become the first U.S. spacecraft to be deployed from the International Space Station (see p. 44)..
Inside are three radios—a Stensat Radio Beacon transmitting with 1 watt of power at 437 MHz, and modems designed for Orbcomm and Iridium low-Earth-orbit communications satellites. Because of licensing issues, only the beacon will be operating during flight, but San Jose State students have already demonstrated that the Iridium and Orbcomm hardware can be integrated into a 1U cubesat, and powered with batteries approved for safety by NASA's ISS program office at Johnson Space Center.