Copenhagen Suborbitals may not be the first DIY (do it yourself) space project, but it’s become something akin to the godfather of the DIY crowd. Afterall, if a couple guys can build bonafide launchable rockets and a custom designed and manufactured capsule just to get themselves into space, how challenging can launching your own satellite be? Copenhagen Suborbitals is still working on their ultimate goal of reaching space, although their launches and drop tests have provided lots of inspiration to the entrepreneurial types. Here is an overview of some of the space startups and projects that have surfaced over the past year. You’ll notice a lot of Kickstarter mentions – the crowdsourcing forum has become something of a favorite for those with a space idea to get some funding and some followers.
Hackerspace Global Grid
A group of hackers motivated by internet monitoring threats such as the proposed US legislation Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), decided to put their minds to the task of creating free, unregulated internet access. Calling the initiative Hackerspace Global Grid, they plan to do operate their own groundstations and launch their own satellites. Some of the legal ramifications haven’t quite been worked out yet – for instance, whichever country plays host to the launch will have to take legal responsibility for the spacecraft according to international law. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible with today’s ease of access to space for such a group to create an extra-national internet framework. The group has started working on its three ground stations as well as programming communication and telemetry software. It plans to operate on a non-profit basis.
In April 2012, Planetary Resources became the first commercial venture to target asteroid mining. The startup has some big backers – financially and technically. Although eventually the company hopes to mine water and platinum from near Earth asteroids, it plans to spend its first decade developing, launching, and operating the first commercial space based telescopes to find out more about those asteroids. The company spurred widespread debate among space lawyers, since international law does not clearly provide for commercial parties processing space bodies. But it also galvanized space exploration enthusiasts, happy to see concrete progress towards advancing space utilization in a big way.
The number of DIY weather balloons that have been launched in recent months are nearly too numerous to count. From high schoolers sending up their favorite action figure or iPhone to actual citizen science, the balloon has become a favored way to quickly and inexpensively have some space fun. Weather balloons don’t actually make it to space – loosely defined as 100 km above sea level – but it’s close enough to be pretty awesome.
Liftport Space Elevator
This project was successfully funded at $110,353 on Kickstarter, fast becoming the go-to place for raising DIY space money, in September 2012. LiftPort intends to build a 2 km ribbon that it will be suspended by high altitude balloon, then have a robot climb the ribbon. This miniproject is just a first step towards their goal of building a fully operational Lunar elevator that can transport cargo from the Moon’s orbit to the Lunar surface. The Lunar elevator itself is intended as a technology development phase for ultimately building a space elevator on Earth, one that can transport cargo and perhaps even people from Earth’s surface to orbit and back. The space elevator concept is not a new one, but it has widely been seen as technically impractical, not to say impossible. LiftPort may have found a technically sound approach to moving the needle on space elevator feasibility. Japansese construction company Obayashi Corp announced a space elevator initiative earlier in the year, but their version sounds traditionally fantastical.
KickSat was funded on Kickstarter in late 2011 for $74,586. Marketed as your own personal spacecraft, the initiative aims to provide hundreds of people with their own “Sprite” postage stamp sized mini spacecraft that deploy from the CubeSat KickSat. The founder, a Cornell Aerospace Engineering PhD student, aims to bring down the cost of a spacecraft so anyone can afford their own.
ArduSat was funded on Kickstarter in July 2012 for $106,330. ArduSat is the kickoff project for the startup NanoSatisfi. The company is aiming to launch open source Cubesats loaded with scientific instruments that anyone can control from on the ground. They’ll have a duplicate satellite on the ground so people can test out their code before uploading it to the real thing.
SkyCube was funded on Kickstarter in September 2012 for $116,890. SkyCube, founded by makers of astronomy apps, entails the launch of a CubeSat that will allow customers to order images of Earth from orbit and broadcast customer composed tweets from the satellite. The app makers will build – what else? – apps that can be used to place and receive orders.
The Hermes spacecraft is a miniature version of the Space Shuttle, intended to be used for suborbital tourism flights. The spacecraft is being built by STAR Systems, a four-man group more or less operating out of their garage – not to be confused with the spaceplane of the same name abandoned by ESA in the 90’s. In April 2012, Hermes completed a Kickstarter campaign for $20,843 to make full sized rocket engine prototypes for testing.
Ok, this is a high altitude balloon project, but it’s a pretty cool one – and it tried to mix in some actual science. The idea is interested citizens – mostly students – put whatever they want inside a ping pong ball. That could be a marshmallow to see it expand in the low pressure then freeze dry, or actual instrumentation to measure conditions on the flight. The project first came to Kickstarter in the summer of 2012, but the company behind it, JP Aerospace, has been knocking around for a few years. The company is really one man, John Powell . It markets itself as The OTHER Space Program and makes the pingpong launch on a regular basis now. JPA also works on amateur air ship flying.
A finalist in this year’s New Space Business Plan competition, Unreasonable Rocket is a father-son team that aims to create an independent CubeSat launcher. CubeSats are currently attached as secondary payloads to big launchers and therefore lack independence and have limited launch opportunities. Unreasonable Rocket also participated in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander challenge that was awarded to Masten Space Systems in 2009.
Google Lunar XPrize
Although not a startup itself, Google Lunar XPrize and the XPrize Foundation in general deserve an honorable mention for spurring the creation of space startups. The Google Lunar XPrize is the latest space competition offered by the foundation. 26 teams are competing to be the first to send a home grown lunar lander to the Moon and win $30 million in prize money. Even those teams that fail can’t help but make significant progress in developing new technologies and design approaches, often in countries that don’t have robust space programs of their own. In 2004 the Ansari XPrize boosted commercial suborbital development when Scaled Composites won $10 million for SpaceShip One. The next generation SpaceShip Two is the craft that lofts Virgin Galactic’s suboribital tourist WhiteKnight.
There are plenty of ways to get involved in space without starting your own company. NASA and ESA both make room for student and amateur experiments on parabolic flights and even on the International Space Station. New space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are similarly making room for citizen science. And of course, one can always take advantage of startups who would be happy to welcome a new customer. But if you want to create your very own space experience, a little grit and a good idea will get you half way there. Space is getting closer by the day.