AMSAT, the umbrella term for a global network of amateur radio organizations that has been working with space agencies since 1969, is getting a boost from a new operation called PhoneSat, created within NASA but open to the world. Another NASA innovation called SpaceShop is being developed to help with hardware development, but you have to be part of the organization to access it. None of the international AMSAT organizations is going away; NASA is certainly not chasing off the hams; but the opportunity to participate is broadening.
For Electronic Design readers who want to get in on the ground floor, there is a unique opportunity coming up -- on a short fuse. I say “short fuse” partially because the drop-dead date for getting in on this opportunity is July 18, but also because the company that’s making this first interaction possible is Littelfuse, which makes, yes, fuses, and also transient voltage suppressors, Zeners, and similar devices for protecting electronics. Littlefuse has set up a prize-drawing after which the company will be taking winning engineers behind the scenes at NASA Ames Research Center and the Johnson Space Flight Center for a series of one-on-ones and TechTalk events with Littlefuse’s sponsorship. The event is called Speed2Design 2013 and you can follow that hotlink to get there. The dates in Santa Clara and Houston are TBA.
AMSAT has been a labor of love among hams, particularly some of those who have figuratively spent their lives committed to the program through OSCAR 51, which flew in low-earth orbit from 2004 until it’s batteries failed in 2011. Efforts still move forward with AMSAT-Germany’s planned Mars mission, which will use a Russian launch vehicle.
But looking forward, this is the age of crowd sourcing, and if you compare the size of the amateur radio population to the population of IOS and Android developers, you’ve got a much larger, younger, talent pool in the latter. And if you compare the RF, signal-processing, and baseband-processing power per dollar of that thing in your pocket to even the most feature-packed KX3 . . . there are some gaps.
I learned about PhoneSat when, at Littlefuse’s request, I and other media representativesspoke with Chad Frost, who is the Chief of the Mission Design Division, at NASA Ames Research Center. Linda Bell, the Editorial Director at NASA Tech Briefs was also part of the conversation.
As Frost explained the genesis of PhoneSat, “A few years ago, we had the intriguing idea that you might, actually, be able to build a spacecraft around a smartphone. Partly, that's possible because as a society, we have this collective, enormous investment of billions and billions of dollars in consumer electronics. And we've driven consumer electronics really hard to the point where they are just amazingly capable little devices and, ridiculously affordable for what they contain.” (E.g.: fast CPU, one or two cameras, relatively huge memory, acceleration and rotation sensors, magnetometer, GPS, radios, and a Li-Ion battery)
“We were intrigued by the notion that you could build a very small spacecraft, based entirely on consumer electronics devices and other low-cost systems.”
This turned into a fast-track effort. Several weeks ago, NASA launched three PhoneSats. (The project started in 2009.) The birds weighed 2.8, 2.9, and 3.14 pounds and fit within the 10-by-10-by-10 cm CubeSat platform form factor developed at Cal Poly and Stanford. Hardware costs varied between $3500 and $7000. (That was on April 21. Unfortunately, six days later, the birds fell out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere. But that launch was the maiden flight of Oribital Science Corps' Antares rocket, so there's no blame attached to the PhoneSats.
Those satellites were to do a little bit of science, a little bit of technology, proving out some concepts and systems Frost said. “But after that, there's a lot of possibilities. You might have, for example, a space weather monitoring system that provides early warnings for what's going on out there. You might, conceivably, have an Earth observation system that provides a synthetic aperture, so you might be able to put together a very, very high resolution and detailed hyperspectral imagery, of phenomenon taking place on the Earth that would, ordinarily, take something the size of a Hubble Space Telescope, but you’d do it with a whole bunch of separate individual small cameras. And we're seriously looking at how you go out to around the moon and beyond. How do you go out to near-Earth objects, asteroids? Can you send these things out to Mars by hitchhiking along with the next Mars mission?”
I asked Frost about radiation hardening. It seemed like all that plastic-encapsulated silicon would be subject to upsets and latch-ups.
He observed that traditionally, engineers concerned about radiation did a several things: avionics were a little more mechanically robust, transistors were built on larger geometries, there would be shielding, etc. “But there are new approaches. You can put multiple processors onboard, and let them vote; that's kind of what we do with commercial and military aircraft that are dependent on computers for flight control. If one has a problem, there're two or three others that hopefully don't, and then they can vote on the right course of action is.
“We can also mitigate the effects of radiation-induced failures, somewhat, in software, software that's monitoring the activity of the system, looking for problems. And if it detects a problem, it can either fix it or, gracefully, reset the system.”
Another aspect of the new, more inclusive spirit at NASA that will be evaluated by winners of the Littlefuse drawing is “SpaceShop, an internal program, that is intended to capture the Maker spirit of TechShop with all sorts of traditional metal working stuff, plus 3D printers, laser-etching, laser-cutting machines, water jets, and shop gear on the soft goods and electronics side as well. We wanted to do the same thing for our engineers and scientists and technologists, here at Ames. Our people could go in, and try putting together their prototype concepts. There are very low barriers to entry; you can just go do it.
(DT: I have to say that this reminds me of Tektronix in the old days, when Howard Vollum was still running the place, and engineers were expected to work on their own projects on company time.)
Frost also said, “This whole new domain of additive manufacturing is leading to really exciting things, like... We're trying to figure out, can you print a satellite? Not just the structure, but the electronic vias and everything. So, you could just plug the avionics parts into it and pretty much it’s done. So, I expect that, sometime in next couple of years, we will launch something that is 3D-printed. We, already, have launched spacecraft with parts on board that were 3D-printed. So, I think, that's coming.”
Even more blue-sky, Frost said,“I think we will have solar electric propulsion systems at the nanosat scale, in a few years, hopefully soon. That will enable these very tiny spacecraft to go flying off into, potentially, interstellar space and that will be a whole new era of robotic exploration."