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  • bjbjv Stephen: Hi and welcome to another episode where I interview innovative makers and entrepreneurs.

  • Today, we have Sandy Antunes, author of "DIY Satellite Platforms." He is going to talk

  • about his book and how you can build a satellite. Sandy welcome. Thanks for joining us. Sandy:

  • Thank you. It is good to be here, Steve. Stephen: Tell us, you've recently written a book for

  • O'Reilly Media, "DIY Satellite Platforms." What is that book, exactly? Sandy: The book

  • is the culmination of the series of mistakes, attempts, and home built satellite building.

  • The idea is, I made all of the mistakes so no one else has to and figure out how to build

  • your own satellite in your own basement and documented it. Stephen: That's cool. It's

  • the first of four series? Sandy: Right. The first one is about building the satellite

  • and in the second one how to test it for rocket launch and for space. Space is a hostile environment.

  • Vacuum is tough. It turns out the rocket launch is where most satellites fail. The second

  • one is how you can convert an orbital sander to a shake rig and how you can make a vacuum

  • chamber out of a pressure cooker and all the things that you need to make a space test

  • chamber in your basement. Stephen: How did you get into this? Sandy: I was doing science

  • writing. My background is as an astronomer and I had done some satellite operations for

  • NASA, but I had never actually built stuff. When I was doing science writing, Interorbital

  • announced the $8,000 TubeSat kit. My thought is they are including a launch for $8,000

  • schematics and a launch. So for mid life crisis, do I want to get a motorcycle or build a satellite?

  • Obviously, I can guess how most of the people listening to this are going to decide, also.

  • When that happened, I decided to see if we are really in a new space age where you can

  • make your own personal satellite. I started making it in my basement and documenting it.

  • I called it Project Calliope after the Muse, because it is going to convert the ionosphere

  • to music. Stephen: It's going to beam that down? That is awesome. Sandy: It's like going

  • to the ocean and hearing the waves. You close your eyes and you hear the waves. You get

  • the feel of the ebb and the flow of what is going on. We don't know that for space. My

  • thought is let's convert orbits to sounds so people get a sense and the feel of the

  • rhythm of space. Stephen: Nice. You obviously have technical training. You are an astronomer,

  • you are a science writer, but you didn't have hardware experience for this. It was something

  • you could go down to your basement and build and learn. I don't think you are a dotcom

  • millionaire. Correct me if you are wrong. This technology is so affordable now someone

  • who is dedicated can actually build a space craft. Sandy: You don't have to be that dedicated.

  • It is down to the hobbyist level now in terms of building it. There is so many tools and

  • support in the maker community. The schematics for the PCBs are out there. There are web

  • companies that you send the plans to and they will send you the boards. This satellite has

  • four main boards plus the instrument. Each board you can get made by a one off PCB fab

  • for $40.00. We are away from the old days when you had to be an electrical engineer

  • and lay out copper traces and dip things in baths. Now it's kits. You get the pieces and

  • the job of the builder is designing and integrating parts that you can get. You have heard about

  • 3D printers, now if you want to make a pay load that has a custom shape, you can get

  • a 3D printer and print things. It's a huge time to be a maker. Everyone is already doing

  • adventurous stuff with sending iPhones up in high altitude balloons. Let's go one higher

  • and actually go to orbit. Stephen: How did you decide to document all of this? I am sure

  • a lot of people said they were gong to build a space craft, but you said, "I am going to

  • do it, and document everything I did." Is that just the science writer in you? Sandy:

  • That's the science writer, the teacher, and the noisy part of me. Me doing it doesn't

  • do anything but prove something to myself. But me documenting it, means other people

  • can take it what I do and make it better. It's the difference between playing guitar

  • in your basement and then going out to open mic night or hooking up with a band. In one

  • of them you learn a skill but in the other one you are building something bigger than

  • yourself and having people walk away and hopefully outdo you. Saying, "that was great, but I

  • am going to push this even further." Yes do that. Stephen: Has this become bigger than

  • what you originally though. You were going to build it in your basement, now there is

  • a book on O'Reilly Media. Has it gained traction that you didn't think was possible? Sandy:

  • I haven't got invited to a TED Talk yet so I am not going to say it has gone as big as

  • I would have like it to, but certainly has gone to the level I had hoped to. Which is

  • the maker community has gotten interested in it. I have gotten criticism and the positive

  • feedback. I have got people saying, "Oh, man [AMstat] already did that back in the 40's."

  • I have got at least three other projects that said they are inspired by my weekly blog and

  • have done their own TubeSat. One of them is building a pulse plasma engine. He said he

  • is following all that I did. I thought he is so much smarter than me, this is cool.

  • Stephen: The space craft is built out of home kits and PCB boards that are $40. How long

  • do you think this spacecraft will last in orbit? There's radiation and all sorts of

  • stuff. Sandy: It's a short project. You will probably get about six weeks, no more than

  • three months. They are launched into low earth orbit about 250 kilometers up, or about 400

  • miles. The orbit will decay very quickly because you have a small irregular obit tumbling.

  • They will ecologically burn up in reentry after a very short period. This is about trying

  • new technology and experimenting on stuff that can hopefully move on to something new.

  • Stephen: If you were in a higher orbit would the orbit be the determining factor or the

  • space craft degrading in radiation? Sandy: Good question. A typical mass submission used

  • to use custom parts and then they realized it was cheaper to use off the shelf high end

  • parts. NASA missions have a life of two years but often go for eight or more. The [inaudible

  • 06:50] community has built some larger micro sacs that have lasted over a decade. I think

  • if you have a higher orbit, you could definitely get several years even with home parts. Stephen:

  • The limiting factor now is the orbit you are putting it in not the fact that you are getting

  • off shelf components and it's degrading. It's the fact they are falling back from the sky.

  • Sandy: Yes, the orbiter is the limit for everything in space. Everything in space we want to do

  • is limited by getting up higher. If we can't get up high we can't do anything. That's what

  • drives your weight limit. The weight limit drives you only have a certain power budget.

  • You can only put a certain amount of instruments. You can only last a certain period of time.

  • That's why we need better rockets. I am not a rocket scientist so I can't build a better

  • rocket, but I can build a satellite. Stephen: You are using the Interorbital TubeSat kit.

  • Is that what you are using? Sandy: Yes. And the old prop. Stephen: I love the prop. They

  • have been saying $8,000 a launch for a while now. Do you know how close they are to achieving

  • their orbital mission? Sandy: They are always about a year out. Part of this is rocket science.

  • I always joke you can't send a rocket up until you have blown up enough rockets to prove

  • you know what you are doing. They are still in the blowing up stage. I understand they

  • have their FAA clearances to do some ballistic launches and they are doing tests with that.

  • They recently about a month or two ago announced they had NASA contract to do some further

  • research. So, they are getting some NASA money, which shows they have moved into a slightly

  • bigger pond. Although, they don't like it when I say, "if Interorbital is not the first

  • cheap provider into space, someone else will be." They are one of several players. They

  • are one of the noisiest. I love working with them. They get the open source ethos and the

  • idea of working with hobbyists and other people. I hope they succeed, but I am also predicting

  • someone will, if not them, someone else. Stephen: I know there is a new nanosat launched that

  • challenge that is out there. I was at Space Access 12 and there was a couple of panels

  • that were going to compete. Seems there are a lot of people going for it. I agree some

  • sort of nano launcher will bring down the cost, but I think it will make it possible

  • for more people like you to build a satellite. $8,000 that's amazing. Sandy: Yes, it is about

  • a factor 10 cheaper than previous access. One thing I discovered recently as I started

  • doing this more, I wanted to show you could do it even if you are not part of a university

  • or team, really the lone maker. There are teams out there doing it. It turns out that

  • NASA and other people will broker a launch opportunity if you have a working cubesat.

  • It's not if you get a launch slot and then you build it like I am. Instead if you build

  • a cubesat, there's several universities and NASA that will help you find someone that

  • has spare room to put your cubesat on. I didn't even realize this. Most rockets launch with

  • wasted weight, because if the rocket is built to launch 2,000 lbs and the pay load is 1,850

  • then they have to put something in for the extra 150 to keep their cap calculations.

  • The fact that every rocket that is launching a satellite is sending up junk, dead weight,

  • is horrifying. There are people that are brokering to try and replace that with Picosatellites.

  • There are opportunities now. Stephen: Those are opportunities for individuals not necessarily

  • universities or non-profits. It's anyone with a working cubesat. Sandy: Anyone with a working

  • cubesat who can get connected with the right people. Its still friend of a friend and that's

  • the barrier that Interorbital did. Interorbital did it the old capitalistic way. If you have

  • the money, we will fly you straight out. I'm not good with the backroom deal. Stephen:

  • You are kind of like the FedEx. You give us this money and we will put it up there. Sandy:

  • Exactly. The cubesat community is like the mafia. I know someone, and they will do a

  • favor for you. Stephen: One of the things I was curious about, I worked for a defense

  • contractor. I was a mechanical engineer. One of the things they always stressed was ITAR,

  • International Traffic and Arms Regulations. Was that an issue when you were posting your

  • stuff? I know a lot of it is off the shelf components. PicoSATs, was that ever an issue?

  • Sandy: Some of ITAR could be summarized as don't ask, don't tell. Stephen: I know there

  • are several issues. Sandy: I have not run into any ITAR issues for the reason you said.

  • I am doing off the shelf, openly available materials. That said I am trying to avoid

  • ITAR and policy as much as possible because it is very confusing and a very unsettled

  • territory right now. One of the issues with going with a broker like Interorbital is that

  • they are handling the mountain of paperwork. The joke is that you need to have a stake

  • of paperwork equal to the height of your rocket, before you can launch. Stephen: I heard that.

  • Sandy: They are handling a lot of the permission issue, that when I give them the satellite

  • and they check it and accept it that's going to handle a lot of permission issues. That

  • said there are things you cannot fly. You cannot fly an imaging detector that points

  • to the earth without getting special permission. You cannot fly a broadcast device even for

  • commanding or communicating with your satellite without negotiating spectrum with either the

  • FCC of the International IARU for amateurs. There are some policy stuff that I have to

  • step into. Some of these things that I am discovering or blundering into are why I am

  • doing the blog and the book, so that other people can say, oh okay and be informed. Stephen:

  • You are talking about broadcasting. Your spacecraft is going to send the signal back to earth

  • you have to get the FCC involved? Sandy: FCC if I was doing it as for private spectrum,

  • but if I am using amateur ham radio which I am then the IRU is the negotiating body

  • and you basically give them your launch window and they negotiate out who is using spectrum.

  • A couple of requirements you will get no more than 10% of any given orbit. So for a 90 minute

  • orbit you get maybe nine minutes of contact. Stephen: Okay. Sandy: You have to be able

  • to shut down your transmitter instantly if it is infringing in some way, shape, or form.

  • One technical solution there that I recommend people do have your transmitter automatically

  • shut down within any 10 minute period so that you have to activate it to turn on. That way

  • you are not going to have a promiscuous satellite that is corrupting the spectrum. I recently

  • discovered GENSO which is an ESA European space agency network for pica satellite communication.

  • The idea is you get hardware that matches their system, hook up to their server and

  • you get to use any other GENSO to command your satellite as long as you make your antenna

  • system available to other satellite people. There is some interesting stuff growing now

  • in the small pica satellite realm. Stephen: There's a whole European communications network

  • for small satellites. Sandy: I have one that has several U.S. universities and partners

  • participating already. It is for the amateur and university level space. Stephen: There

  • is no issue for you participating as an American citizen in the European network? Sandy: I

  • know that U.S. universities have participated. I don't know if I as an individual can participate.

  • That is one of the things I am doing some research on. Stephen: What's going to be harder?

  • Building your spacecraft or getting through all of the regulations to build your space

  • craft and to launch it. Sandy: Originally I thought it would be an engineering challenge.

  • I would have to learn a lot of engineering and fabricating. It does turn out that the

  • figuring out what to do in the policy stuff is about as hard. Stephen: Amazing. I talked

  • with Michael Clive who started the Mojave Maker Hackerspace. One of the questions I

  • asked, "is it possible to make space missions out of maker stations?" He took the human

  • side of it. He didn't really talk about the technology. It was taking for granted technologies

  • there but it is more of a human management. Can you organize people to do this? We have

  • got away from the technologies as the limiting factor. It's the people and the policies is

  • now what is holding us back. Sandy: It is. That is where the universities are stepping

  • up. There are several universities that will do a balloon build in a weekend as a senior

  • level project or similar things. There are some team ups of [Wallup's] launch facility

  • in Virginia for doing sounding types of launches. Brown University recently announced their

  • open sourcing their plans for picosatellite building. They are sending up a scheme. It's

  • basically strobes that people can see their own satellite. The idea is anyone can do this.

  • It's become now a team and an organizing effort more than a technical challenge. I like that.

  • That's what's going to commoditize space in a good way. It's like the early internet was

  • only connecting some government and university sites and then everyone was able to get on

  • through various channels. I think space is going to get that way. That is how we are

  • going to get into space. Not with massive efforts but with lots of teeny efforts. Stephen:

  • That's how HP and Apple were all built in garages and all grew into large companies.

  • Sandy: That's a really big garage. Stephen: Exactly. You are building it in your basement.

  • 10 years form now you have a satellite business and yes I started it in my basement. I see

  • cubesats and picasats as the shipping containers of space where you have got the standard form

  • factor. Anything that can fit in this form factor and weigh this much, we will just stick

  • it on a rocket and launch it up. I think that is a huge advance for space technology. Sandy:

  • It's also where we are going to get our next generation of engineers, hardware or mechanical

  • engineers like yourself or electrical engineers. Now they don't have to be rocket scientists.

  • They can just take something like a basic X24 board or an Arduino board and figure out

  • something that they want to try that you can only do in micro gravity or zero gravity or

  • a new detector concept and be, "I can fly this." I don't have to worry about getting

  • it there. Going with your FedEx analogy, imagine if to send the package, you actually had to

  • contact each driver and figure out all the mapping. You wouldn't have anything. Stephen:

  • The politics and what county you can and can't drive through. Yes, it is a nightmare. Going

  • back to your project, what made you decide that you are going to sample the ionosphere

  • and send back files. How did you decide that particular mission? Sandy: At the time, I

  • was wrapping up grad school. I worked for a time and then I went back to get my degree

  • late in life. I was talking with my grad advisor and we were brainstorming ideas of sending

  • satellites into space. He came up with a $1M idea, which was to send up a satellite where

  • people could record the sound of their farts and then send it back down to earth. I thought

  • that was great, people would pay for that. That was not what I wanted to do. I started

  • thinking about what I wanted to do and I found a company in Canada called Infusion Systems

  • that makes I-CubeX sensors for performance artists. People that want to do kinetic things

  • that track movement or magnetism. The idea of a sensor that coverts magnetic field to

  • MIDI data which is what keyboards send out. Or, they have electric and light sensors and

  • it all coverts it to MIDI. What if you flew that into space and converted all of the space

  • measurements. If you converted that into music instead. Instead of looking at a graph which

  • is not immediately obvious to someone that doesn't know the science behind it you were

  • hearing the pace of space. We are hearing about space weather. Space is a hostile environment.

  • We think it is boring and still we don't have a sense how active things are. I don't know

  • myself how active things are going to be in space. Is this satellite going to fly along

  • and just every hour there will be a solar effect? Some noise or flare up or is it going

  • to be constantly popping with levels ebbing and flowing. It's going through the [ionosphere]

  • which is where the auroras have happened. I am anticipating that every 90 minutes it's

  • going to be at least once through a region of high activity and you are going to hear

  • a huge ramp up. You are going to think this is what the astronauts are going through as

  • they are going through space. This is what space has. It's not like the movies. It has

  • its own natural rhythm. When I found out there is a kit for the satellite that's promising

  • a launch and off the shelf sensors that coverts to music, it just sort of fell out for me.

  • That's when Project Calliope Music from the Ionosphere came into being. Stephen: Since

  • you are getting about 9 minutes of radio time per 90 minutes orbit will you be able to transmit

  • the entire orbit everything that you picked up or is it only going to be enough time to

  • transmit a portion of that orbit? Sandy: I suspect only a portion of the orbit, figuring