Reaching into the Low Orbit Frontier

One of the great things about working on Astronomy Cast is that sometimes I get to learn about things that I just didn’t fully appreciate in the past. Today I’m preparing for an episode on amateur/community spacecraft. I knew this was something that was going on, but I hadn’t appreciated the sheer diversity of missions that are in the works. In order to try and get my notes straight for today’s episode, I am going to summarize things here so that they are a resource for all of us. I’m sure this will be out of date very quickly, but hopefully it will help you appreciate everything as much as I now do. (image credit: NASA)

  • ARKYD: The actual first public space telescope!  This project raised $1,505,366 with 17,614 backers, exceeding their $1 million goal. This mission is the first in a series of spacecraft meant to be affordable to private organizations. While this is the most funded, and the earliest funded project, it currently does not have a launch date slated.
  • ArduSat: This project was successfully funded through a Kick Starter on July 15, 2012. Hoping to raise $35,000, it instead raised $106,330 through 676 backers. The original goal was to create an open source platform that used Arduinos to take data from a variety of orbiting cameras and sensors. This platform would allow competitively selected projects, tested on earth, to take data from space. Two separate satellites were launched from the International Space Station in November 2013.  Today it is possible for school groups to purchase time on the satellite to work on a variety of projects, including projects of their own design. more on wiki)
  • SkyCube: This project was successfully funded through Kick Starter on  September 12, 2012. Hoping to raise $82,500 they actually raised $116,890. They had 2711 backers. They hope to have their first launch this month, and to deploy from the International Space Station sometime in March.  This spacecraft is designed for social interactions: it will tweet from space, interact with amateur radio operators, and integrate with a mobile app.
  • PocketQube:  This project was successfully funded on Kick Starter on October 31, 2013. Hoping to raise £3000, they raised £3146 through 97 backers. The goal of this project is to create standards for tiny satellites that are affordable for educational use and hobbyist use. They launched 4 PocketQuebes in November on a Russian Dnepr-1 Rocket, and plan a second launch in Q2 2014.
  •  Other Projects of Note: Cornell graduate student ChipSat or KickSat (funded  Dec 3, 2011), Student run Space Concordia (funded Nov 2013)

While fundamentally different, it should be noted that Mars One has an active Indiegogo campaign that is looking to raise $400,000 toward their Mars Lander and Satellite mission. This isn’t first time that a commercial space corp has looked to raise funding while simultaneously raising notoriety through an Indiegogo campaign. The reason for the switch to Indiegogo likely has to do with the Indiegogo feature that allows teams who don’t raise the full amount of money to still collect funds. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this: These projects can’t go forward without massive funding and the bits and pieces collected in some cases aren’t even enough to hire a grant writer. But that’s a different discussion…

Just 10 years ago, commercial space companies were in their infancy and every day people couldn’t really hope for a technological ride along. Times are changing, and tomorrow, person satellites may be in the same play toy category that GoPros are in today.


Podcaster / Writer / Assistant Research Professor
Technically skilled, communications-focused astronomer with experience in research, university teaching, public outreach, and popular science writing. Possesses passion for teaching astronomy informally and formally, extensive observational astronomy experience, and more than a decade of experience planning and implementing outreach programs. Seeks to build a career promoting science to the public, amateur astronomers, students (K-PhD), and public policy makers through outreach, activity-based teaching, and popular writing, while evaluating the impact of these activities on participant knowledge and attitude.

Specialties: Big Data, Photometry, Pulsating Variable Stars, Science Writing, Public Speaking, Podcasting, Blogging, Web Design, Graphic Design, Mass Communications, Narration


  1. Chris Casper January 29, 2014 at 3:12 pm #


    I’ve been studying the broader trend of amateur space exploration, including satellite-making. Besides the personal projects you listed, there’s an emerging trend of educational satellites. Here are a couple of examples:

    TJ3Sat (Thomas Jefferson CubeSat) – high schools students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia designed and built their cubesat with support from Orbital Sciences. NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program launched the satellite into space last November to make it the first high school satellite. The project’s website lets you know how to track the satellite on the web or via amateur radio.

    StangSat – Merritt Island High School students are developing a cubesat (Stang is short for Mustang, their mascot) with help from the Kennedy Space Center and CalPoly University. This is part of a KSC pilot program for high school satellite projects. The satellite will be delivered by June of this year and is just waiting for a manifest on a launch vehicle. The project’s Facebook page is

    Mission Possible – why stop at high school? The grade school students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia, are developing their own satellite project with support from Shuttle solid rocket booster ATK. They have already conducted initial balloon-borne tests.

    The three projects share one common element – parents who work at local aerospace companies and space centers – but their pioneering work may lay the groundwork for wider participation by K-12 students in space exploration.


  2. Greg Kail May 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    My how things have changed……. it seems like yesterday OSCAR 1 (the hamsat) was making headlines ….. I think I’m showing my age :-)

Leave a Reply