Space exploration and research have mostly been the domain of nation-states and a few very well-funded companies. But the emergence of the cube satellite — a small, standardized vessel that can be modified with off-the-shelf parts and improved on by a community of open source builders — has dramatically lowered the cost of putting a research-capable craft into space.
One of the companies trying to take advantage of this new platform is NanoSatisfi, which is launching its first cube satellite on August 4th. For $250 a week, anyone from an elementary school to a curious hobbyist can rent time on the satellite and conduct their own experiments.
We’re taking Moore’s law, and we’re moving it into space."
"What’s happening now with satellites is similar to the revolution that brought us from mainframe computer to PCs," says Peter Platzer, NanoSatisfi’s CEO. "Instead of huge, expensive machines, each of which is different, we have smaller, cheaper craft built on a single standard that allows anyone to create improvements for them. We’re taking Moore’s law, and we’re moving it into space."
NanoSatisfi began as a Kickstarter project, raising $106,330 from backers. That success generated enough interest for the company to raise $1.2 million in seed funding from a group of angel investors. Today, it’s announcing an additional $300,000 in funding from the Russian billionaire Dmitry Grishin, who has a fund devoted to consumer robotics.
"There [is] going to be a wave of companies like this," says Michael Gruntman, a professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California. "In the last couple of years, the nano satellites have hit an inflection point where they are small enough and cheap enough to open up a new realm of business opportunities."
"There [is] going to be a wave of companies like this."Ten schools have signed up for the company’s pilot program and NASA has partnered with the NanoSatisfi to conduct research and educational outreach. The company has created software that guides users through the process of setting up experiments and interpreting the data. Education is the first part of the company’s business plan. As it launches more satellites, it hopes to begin gathering enough detailed data that is can make money by selling information on weather patterns, track natural disasters, and aid in agricultural planning and development.
"I am skeptical about the ability of these satellites to do cutting-edge science that makes new discoveries, but they could be useful tools for science education," says Brian Weeden, a former officer with the US Air Force Space Command. "It can get kids doing hands-on science and expose [them] to space and satellite applications."
"There's very little room for error."
Nano satellites also carry risks, says Weeden. "The biggest pitfall to the nanosatellite approach is that there’s very little room for error and a higher chance of something going wrong. One of the reasons that satellites have been so expensive in the past is that they are very well engineered with each individual part built to very exact specifications. There are also usually multiple backups for critical subsystems in case something goes wrong. With a nanosat, you’re typically giving all that up for a much simpler and cheaper system."
NanoSatisfi's CEO acknowledges these risks, but says he believes the future of near-earth satellites will increasingly belong to private companies and to smaller, cheaper craft. He points to reports which predict that the United States won’t be able to replace its aging weather satellites in time. "The government doesn’t have the money to send up new satellites and the ones they have are getting old, literally falling out of the sky," says Patzer. "We think companies like us are going to pick up the slack."