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PocketQube micro-satellite shop set to go live
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PocketQube micro-satellite shop set to go live

by AstroAggregatorJanuary 4, 2014

We recently covered some interesting news in the world of Cubesats, but did you know there’s an even smaller micro-satellite platform called a PocketQube? It was news to me, too. But I guess its also an inevitable development as the progress of miniaturisation of components marches on.

Small satellites are something of a zeitgeist at present – smaller satellites cost less to build, less to launch and they allow individuals (albeit individuals with surprisingly deep pockets) access to space with technology that while not bleeding edge is still at least part of the sword.

The Cubesat standardised form factor is a cube 10cm on a side and weighing a max of 1 kilogram. A PocketQube is one-eighth of that – only 50mm on a side and a maximum mass of 125g. They haven’t had that much exposure in the popular press compared to Cubesats, but I would imagine that this is all set to change due to advances in electronic miniaturisation. A couple have gone into space aboard the Russian Dnepr converted ICBM launch system like the $50sat pictured at the top of this page, a micro-satellite designed to test minaturised components for transmitting and receiving data from this new breed of tiny satellites.

They can also be very sophisticated despite their small size – this offering from Stadako UG, known as the WREN, has miniature pulsed plasma thrusters, reaction wheels and even has a camera that transmits images via slow scan TV (which is also a pretty cool Kerbal Space Program easter egg that Scott Manley does a great explanation of). It’s had a bit of a trouble life but if you’re an amateur ham radio operator you might be able to pick it up or even control it for a small stretch of time.

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The WREN pocketqube factor satellite by Stadako UG

One of the people who wishes to be at the bleeding edge of PocketQube satellites is Tom Walkinshaw, a Glasgow-based entrepeneur who recently managed to fund his idea for a Pocketqube satellite component shop on Kickstarter. He’s not too far away from another satellite shop, Clyde Space, also based in Glasgow but only stocking Cubesat sized (and priced) components. Walkinshaw hopes that by launching the PocketQubeShop website on January 10th that virtually everybody from universities to the average guy in the street will be able to buy and launch a Pocketqube satellite for space based science experiments, comparing them to the rise of personal computers at home and in the workplace.

He makes a damn fine point – despite Cubesats being a lot cheaper than the full sized equivalent that would be launched by NASA, the military or a telecommunications company, they are still very expensive and generally out of reach to the average citizen or company. A simple 1U cubesat solar panel, for example, goes for about $2600 if it forms part of the side of the cube, or $5000 if its deployable (Clydespace). Not exactly an affordable prospect for the average citizen or a research organisation with a small budget.

Going for an even smaller form factor should mean smaller components and smaller power requirements which should mean they become a lot cheaper to build compared to Cubesats and as a smaller mass they should cost a lot less to launch to orbit which to date has always formed the majority cost of Cubesats. Tom claims the costs could be as small as 1/6th (for a IP 50x50x50mm cube) to 1/3rd (for a 2.5P 153x50x50mm cuboid) as launching a single 1U cubesat to orbit.

As an example he models a 1P Pocketqube as costing about $20,000 to get to orbit which is about £12,200 at the moment. Its still a big chunk of money, but compared to the Cubesat solar panels mentioned earlier you could either have a tiny 1P Pocketcube in space – or you could have a small pile of 1U Cubesat components sitting on your desk.

Given the current trends in small space technology, I believe that Tom stands a good chance with the PocketQube form factor being an attractive option for small satellite builders who want to go to space efficiently and economically.

Tom’s PocketQubeShop.com will open for business on January 10th, but you can follow him in the meantime at @PocketQubeShop.

Featured Image : The $50sat 1 .5U PocketQube satellite compared to a hand radio.

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University of Michigan crowdfunds cubesat plasma thruster experiment
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University of Michigan crowdfunds cubesat plasma thruster experiment

by AstroAggregatorDecember 21, 2013

The University of Michigan successfully crowdfunded their Cubesat Ambipolar Thruster on Kickstarter today, securing nearly $96,800 in funding.  According to the project lead, Ben Longmier, this funding will be enough to install a more finessed thruster design on the test cubesats that will result in greater efficiency and longer mission duration.

There has been a noticeable trend in recent years towards the technological development of small form factor satellites (Cubesats) and this kickstarter is apparently the next step of the process – taking those miniature satellites and turning them into miniature, affordable space probes able to take their instruments to other bodies by miniaturising plasma thruster technology.

Where the CAT diverges from existing plasma thruster designs is in the efficiency of producing thrust. A quick look at current plasma thrusters available for cubesats reveals that they are mainly about simply prolonging the life of a cubesat, periodically boosting the orbit to account for atmospheric drag. The ambipolar thruster also has the claimed advantage of being able to be developed to use water as a propellant – most plasma thrusters use relatively heavy mass elements like Xenon but using water down the line makes for a sustainable fuel that could also be mined from asteroids or other planets and moons.

So far the CAT has only been tested in a ground based vacuum chamber at the University of Michigan but this Kickstarter funding will provide the means to mount a CAT prototype to a cubesat and flight-validate the design with appropriate specialist instrumentation.

I have to admit that I’m not too solid on electric propulsion, but even I can see that this particular technology has certainly got some legs and bears watching closely in the future.

You can read more about the University of Michigan’s Cubesat Ambipolar Thruster either on the UoM website or their kickstarter page.

Image: Artists impression of a CAT-fitted cubesat under power. Image: UoM.

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Indian rocket launches seven satellites into polar orbit
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Indian rocket launches seven satellites into polar orbit

by Chris TrudgenFebruary 27, 2013

On Monday 25th of February 2013 the Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle sat on the pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centers’ First Launch Pad with seven satellites inside its protective nose fairing. At 1231 UTC the all the rockets systems checked out and the first stage of the four stage rocket ignited sending the booster soaring into the Indian sky.

(more…)

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