Stuart McAndrew’s local hardware store in suburban Perth isn’t quite Elon Musk’s SpaceX warehouse, and his backyard shed is a far cry from a rocket launch pad. But the ‘picosatellites’ he assembles with ordinary equipment might soon find their way into space.
Picosatellites are just one facet of the growing New Space movement that’s allowing everyday access to the final frontier. So far amateurs and researchers have launched four PocketQubes, the newest iteration, into space, including one that studies ‘electrosmog’—electromagnetic fields caused by Wi-Fi and phone signals. Future cubes could create an inter-satellite communications network in areas without radar coverage and create comprehensive imaging.
Most people building the PocketQubes today are students working in teams, but Stuart flies solo. Driven by his desire to bring space exploration to the masses, he relies on his online community to discuss and build various prototypes. Although he works in IT and has experience in electronics, he says he’s “less skilled than some of these people. I’m just a tinkerer.” Not to mention that, in place of university budgets that cover team projects, Stuart has only the few thousand dollars he’s set aside for his hobby. And time, he adds, including “thousands of hours” of free time since he first began the build in 2013.
Bob Twiggs, an American astronautics professor, first proposed the PocketQube in 2009, over half a century after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. Bob says he saw a need to create affordable satellites to help university students in their research. His earlier creation, the CubeSat, was a larger and costlier version of the sleeker PocketQube.
Professors, students, researchers, and tinkerers worldwide are now working to turn picosatellites from a science project into an actual tool for space discovery. They’re also refining an international standard, called PQ60, to align the electrical and mechanical components in all the PocketQubes so that a device built in Australia is compatible with one from Scotland.
Picosatellites are part of the growing New Space movement enabling everyday access to the final frontier.
Stuart believes his lack of NASA credentials is actually an asset for the homegrown space movement. “Keeping things within my skill level is important,” he says, so that in the future, “building a satellite will be accessible to people with basic skills in electronics.”
Pre-made kits make builds far easier, but carry a heftier price tag. So Stuart is pioneering ways to keep costs down. His early prototypes used materials from local hardware stores, including solar panels and sheet metal. His final PocketQube will require higher-quality versions of these external materials to ensure space-ready certification.
Stuart’s final satellite should cost under AUD 1,000 (USD 745) in materials to build. A picosatellite at that price would cost thousands of dollars less than today’s kits, opening the floodgates to more space hobbyists.
The next real hurdle for Stuart and all small-satellite builders is deploying their creations. While launching a CubeSat or PocketQube is far cheaper than launching a commercial-grade satellite, the USD 20,000 price tag is still prohibitive for most tinkerers. Stuart, who hopes to launch his picosatellite, Qz-Qube1, later this year, says he plans to crowdsource the funds.
He expects the Qz-Qube1 will piggyback on the UniSat 7, a microsatellite that will launch into orbit this December, carrying with it PocketQubes from around the world.
Beyond costs, Stuart’s backyard satellite will have to clear various tests and obtain a launch certificate from the Australian government. Rules to mitigate space debris require that small satellites be equipped to re-enter the atmosphere after 25 years. Stuart will need to prove the Qz-Qube1 is capable of doing so, among other requirements. The cost of these regulatory measures comes in at around USD 10,000, a price tag Stuart hopes the government will lower to encourage more innovation.
Stuart says he hopes his project can demonstrate the potential for these tiny satellites. “Initially people thought CubeSats were just toys,” he says, referring to the PocketQube’s predecessor. But by rigging a camera to his Qz-Qubel, he hopes broadcasting images of Australia from a spacecraft made in an Australian shed will send a “powerful message” to how individuals can interact with outer space.