You may have dreamed of launching your own spacecraft, but felt it was solidly a dream, not something you’d ever be able to do. Most of us aren’t rocket scientists, or scientists of any stripe, so we can’t do much expect look at the stars and wonder. Rockets and satellites cost millions of dollars – far more than most individuals can afford.
But is this how space exploration must work? One project on Kickstarter, Pocket Spacecraft, thinks the answer is a definitive “no.” This ambitious mission aims to launch a small satellite, called a CubeSat, into space with a load of 1,000 tiny pocket-sized spacecraft, each of which is owned by a backer and can perform its own independent mission. To find out more about the project, and the technology behind it, I spoke with Pocket Spacecraft Founder Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson, Founder Of Pocket Spacecraft
Q: Pocket Spacecraft is among the most ambitious projects to hit Kickstarter yet. What led you to decide crowd-funding would be the best way to go?
A: My interest has always been the massive exploration of space. There’s more than a million bodies with a diameter of more than half a kilometer or so in the solar system, but at a billion dollars per Mars rover or whatever, there’s no way to visit them all.
I thought the best way to explore space is to have private individuals who have a sense of ownership and responsibility for their spacecraft, but it seems unlikely a space agency is going to say, “Hey, we’ve got 10,000 spacecraft, have one free each.”
Then when I was at Cornell University a couple of years ago as a visiting scientist, I worked on their ChipSat project, which was a spacecraft roughly the size of a credit card. They had trouble getting funding for a demonstration mission, so I co-created a mission called KickSat to go up on KickStarter at a reasonable price by cost reducing the spacecraft and mission design and improving the functionality and public engagement. It was successful and will be launched by NASA later this year.
So once we knew there was the demand, we thought to try it again at a larger scale. We need about 1,000 people this time, instead of 100 or so (for KickSat) and so we’re going to try and take it up a notch and see if we can do something 10 times more ambitious.
Q: Your project will be using an interesting mini-satellite, the “CubeSat,” to send the personal spacecraft into orbit. Can you summarize what makes CubeSat a great choice for this project?
A: Traditionally satellites and spacecraft have been large things, and were designed and built for a specific rocket, and that meant you had to buy all the rocket or most of it, which was tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
But about ten years ago two professors came up with the idea of CubeSat, which is a standardized shape of spacecraft that a lot of rockets can support. And the idea was that students doing a Ph.D could come up with an idea, build the spacecraft and see it launched all within the course of their Ph.D.
That was successful, and over the last ten years about 70 CubeSats have been launched, and they’re an established method of doing things. Commercial companies are looking to launching “constellations” of them, and there are over 200 CubeSat projects underway.
The point is to commoditize access to space. You can build this project and then go to Russia, or America or whoever and say “I’ve got this CubeSat, how much will it cost to launch?” And that’s about $50,000.
Q: The Pocket Spacecraft itself is an incredibly small machine. Why’d you choose this approach over a larger, more complex design?
A: The thing about the Pocket Spacecraft is we want to make them very, very light and very, very thin, because if you do that, they’ll survive re-entry. If you want to drop them on a planet with atmosphere, you can do that.,They float down like leaves from a tree. Something like the Mars rover is obviously a different kind of vehicle and more capable, but there’s a huge amount of hardware going around supporting the landing. With the Pocket Spacecraft, that’s not needed.
Also, because they’re so light and thin, they act as solar sails propelled by the light of the sun. That’s an incredibly small force, but there’s no friction in space, so if you’re not in a hurry and don’t mind waiting, it can work. In theory, a solar sail could send a craft up to a tenth of the speed of light.
We’re not trying to do anything like that yet, but the economics work for many types of missions. We can pack a thousand or more of these into a CubeSat, and split the cost of launch a thousand ways, which brings the price down to a level where individuals can afford it.
Q: Some of your reward tiers allow for customization of the Pocket Spacecraft. What kind of usage do you envision for these tiers?
A: There are several different ways to customize. The simplest is appearance, so you can print an image or a message on the spacecraft. That’s very basic.
The next tier of customization is software, which is compatible with Arduino, so anyone who has experience with Arduino can write software and upload it to the spacecraft. Radio amateurs, for example, are interested in doing radio transmission between spacecraft. There are potentially interesting science experiments, as well; the spacecraft in low earth orbit will have magnetometers that can collect data on the Earth’s magnetic field.
And we’re using printable electronics, so if you want to do hardware customization, you can give us plans and we’ll print things like antennas or coils or resistors on the spacecraft. If you print a coil on the spacecraft, for example, and run a current through it, that will generate a small magnetic field. If you’re in Earth orbit that field will, like a compass needle, interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, and you can actually turn your spacecraft.
Q: Unlike most Kickstarters, which focus on a marketable end product, your project is about exploration and research. What do you hope backers will get out of the experience?
A: Actually, I think our backers are getting an end product. They’re getting a spacecraft in space, a mission control app, and they’re going to have three years of entertainment as the spacecraft is built and launched.
When the PC industry started, people said it was absurd, but now they’re everywhere. The same might be said of personal spacecraft. I see no reason why a science class shouldn’t be able to do a robotic mission into the solar system, or why scientists shouldn’t be able to meet with individuals with a spacecraft to create a mission. I think there’s the possibility this could be the beginning of a private personal spacecraft industry. But time will tell.
More About Pocket Spacecraft
At the time of this writing Pocket Spacecraft has a goal of 290,000 pounds which must be achieved by August 26, 2013. You can share a spacecraft for a pledge of just 19 pounds, or gain access to your own personal spacecraft for 99 pounds. Check out the Kickstarter page for more!