How to build your own personal satellite

Have you ever wanted to build your own personal satellite but your last name doesn’t start with Gates or Branson? Well, now there’s good news. For the price of a car you can now build, test and launch your own personal satellite at home.

Dr. Sandy Antunes, Author of DIY Satellite Platform, talks about building his own personal spacecraft Project Calliope. The best part (besides having your own satellite) is that you can now do some serious science.

Find out what kind of satellite Dr. Antunes is building and how he’s running the same kinds of tests the large Aerospace companies do, but for a fraction of the cost.

How To Build Your Own Personal Satellite

Stephen: Hi and welcome to another episode where I interview innovative makers and entrepreneurs. Today, we have Sandy Antunes, author of DIY Satellite Platforms. He is going to talk about his book and how you can build a satellite. Sandy, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Sandy: Thank you. It is good to be here, Steve.

Stephen: Tell us, you’ve recently written a book for O’Reilly Media, DIY Satellite Platforms. What is that book, exactly

Sandy: The book is the culmination of the series of mistakes, attempts, and home-built satellite building. The idea is, I made all of the mistakes, so no one else has to, and figure out how to build your own satellite in your own basement. And documented it.

Stephen: That’s cool. It’s the first of four — a series?

Sandy: Right. The first one is about building the satellite and the second one how to test it for rocket launch — and for space. Because space is a hostile environment. Vacuum is tough. But it turns out the rocket launch is where most satellites fail. So the second one is how you can convert an orbital sander to a shake rig and how you can make a vacuum chamber out of a pressure cooker and all the things that you need to make a space test chamber in your basement.

Stephen: Really cool!

Getting Started on Project Calliope


Stephen: So how did you get into this?

Sandy: I was doing science writing. My background is as an astronomer and I had done some satellite operations for NASA for some time, but I had never actually built stuff. When I was doing science writing, Interorbital announced the $8,000 TubeSat kit. My thought is, wait: they are including a launch for $8,000 — schematics and a launch. So, for a mid-life crisis, do I want to get a motorcycle or build a satellite? Obviously, I can guess how most of the people listening to this are going to decide, also.

When that happened, I decided to see if we are really in a new space age where you can make your own personal satellite. I started making it in my basement and documenting it. I called it Project Calliope after the Muse, because it is going to convert the ionosphere to music.

Stephen: OK, cool. So it’s going to beam that down? That is awesome.

Sandy: It’s like going to the ocean — you hear the waves. You close your eyes and you hear the waves. You get the feel of the ebb and the flow of what is going on. We don’t know that for space. My thought is let’s convert orbit to sounds so people get a sense of the rhythm of space.

Stephen: Nice.

Lowering the Bars – Expertise, Cost, Time

You don’t have to be that dedicated, really…

Stephen: You obviously have technical training. You are an astronomer, you are a science writer, but you didn’t have hardware experience for this. It was something you could go down to your basement and build and learn. I don’t think you are a dotcom millionaire. I mean you might be — correct me if I’m wrong.

Sandy: No, no, no. [Laughs.]

Stephen: This technology is so affordable now that someone who is dedicated can actually build an actual spacecraft.

Sandy: Yes. And you don’t have to be that dedicated, really. It is down to the hobbyist level now in terms of building it. There are so many tools. So much support in the maker community. The schematics for the PCBs are out there. There are web companies that you send the plans to and they will send you the boards.

This satellite has four main boards plus the instrument, and each board you can get made by a one-off PCB fab for $40.00. We are away from the old days when you had to be an electrical engineer and lay out copper traces and dip things in baths. Now it’s kits. You get the pieces and the job of the builder is designing and integrating parts that you can get.

You have heard about 3D printers, now if you want to make a payload that has a custom shape, you can get a 3D printer and print things. It’s a huge time to be a maker. Everyone is already doing adventurous stuff with sending iPhones up in high altitude balloons, so let’s just go one higher and actually go to orbit.

Stephen: Of course, yeah!

Why These Books?

Personal satellite books

Stephen: How did you decide to document all of this? I am sure a lot of people said they were going to build a spacecraft, but you actually said, “I am going to do it, but I’m going to document everything I did.” Is that just the science writer in you?

Sandy: Yes, there’s the science writer, the teacher, and the noisy part of me. Me doing it doesn’t do anything but prove something to myself. But me documenting it, means other people can take it what I do and make it better.

It’s the difference between playing guitar in your basement and then going out to open mic night or hooking up with a band. In one of them you learn a skill, but in the other one you are building something bigger than yourself and letting other people walk away and hopefully outdo you, saying, “That was great, but I am going to push this even further.” To which I’m, like, “Yes! Do that! Do that!”


Stephen: Has this become bigger than what you originally thought, when you were going to build it in your basement? Now there is a book on O’Reilly Media. Has it gained traction and gone places that you didn’t think were possible?

Sandy: I haven’t got invited to a TED Talk yet so I am not going to say it has gone as big as I would have like it to. But certainly it has gone to the level I had hoped to, which is the maker community has gotten interested in it.

I’ve gotten criticism, I’ve gotten positive feedback, I’ve gotten people saying, “Oh, man, AMSAT already did that back in the 40′s.” I’ve gotten at least three other projects that said, “Wow, we’re really inspired by your weekly build blog and so we’ve decided to do our own TubeSat.” One of them is building an ion engine. (Although he calls it a pulse plasma; he gets upset when I call it an ion engine.) He said he is following all that I did. I thought, “You’re so much smarter than me, this is so cool.”

Stephen: Nice! The spacecraft is built out of home kits and PCB boards that are $40.

Calliope Orbital Lifetime

Stephen: How long do you think this spacecraft will last up in orbit? There’s radiation and all sorts of stuff.

Sandy: Three months, tops. You’ll probably get about six weeks, no more than three months. They are launched into low earth orbit — about 250 kilometers up, I think, so it’s about 400 miles. The orbit will decay very quickly because you have a small irregular object tumbling. They will ecologically burn up in reentry after a very short period. This is about trying new technology and experimenting on stuff that then can hopefully move on to something new.

Stephen: I’m curious: If it were in a higher orbit would the orbit be the limiting factor or the spacecraft components degrading in radiation?

Sandy: Good question. A typical NASA mission used to use custom parts and then they realized it was cheaper to use off-the-shelf high-end parts. NASA missions have a nominal life of two years but often go for eight or more. I think you could do– oh, yeah, and also the AMSAT community has built some larger microsats that have lasted over a decade. I think if you got a higher orbit, you could definitely get several years even with home parts.

Stephen: So, really, the limiting factor now is the orbit you are putting it in, not the fact that you are getting off-the-shelf components and they’re degrading. It’s that thing’s falling back from the sky.

Sandy: Yes, the orbit is the limit for everything in space. Everything in space we want to do is limited by getting up higher. If we can’t get up high we can’t do anything. That’s what drives your weight limit. Your weight limit drives the fact that you only have a certain power budget, and you can only put a certain amount of instruments, and you can only last a certain period of time. That’s why we need better rockets. I am not a rocket scientist so I can’t build a better rocket, but I can build a satellite.

Working with Interorbital Systems

Stephen: You are using the Interorbital TubeSat kit. Is that what you are using?

Sandy: Yes. And the old prop.

Stephen: I love the prop. They have been saying $8,000 a launch for a while now. Do you know how close they are to achieving their orbital mission?

Sandy: They are always about a year out. Part of this is rocket science. I always joke you can’t send a rocket up until you have blown up enough rockets to prove you know what you are doing. They are still in the blowing up stage.

I understand they have their FAA clearances to do some ballistic launches and they are doing tests with that. They recently, about a month or two ago, announced they had NASA contract to do some further research. So, they are getting a little NASA money, which shows they have moved into a slightly bigger pond, there. Although — they don’t like it when I say it — if Interorbital is not the first cheap provider into space, someone else will be. They are one of several players. They are one of the noisiest.

I love working with them, and they really get the open source ethos and the idea of working with hobbyists and other people. I really hope they succeed, but I am also predicting someone will — if not them, someone else.

Stephen: I know there is a new nanosat launch challenge out there. I was at Space Access 12 awhile back, and there was a couple of panelists that were going to compete for it. Seems there are a lot of people going for it. I agree some sort of nano launcher will definitely bring down the cost, but I think it will make it possible for more people like you to build a satellite. I mean, $8,000 — that’s amazing.

Sandy: Yes, it is about a factor of 10 cheaper than previous access. One thing I discovered recently as I started doing this more, I wanted to show you could do it even if you are not part of a university or a team, really the lone maker. But there are teams out there doing it.

Secondary Payloads, care of NASA, et al.

Sandy: It turns out that NASA and other people will broker a launch opportunity if you have a working cubesat. It’s not that you get a launch slot and then you build it like I am. Instead if you build a cubesat, there’s several universities and NASA that will help you find someone that has spare room to put your cubesat on. I didn’t even realize this.

Most rockets launch with ballast — with wasted weight, because if the rocket is built to launch 2,000 lbs and the payload is 1,850 then they have to put something in for the extra 150 to keep their cap calculations. The fact that every rocket that is launching a satellite is sending up junk — dead weight — is horrifying. There are people that are brokering to try and replace that with picosatellites. There are opportunities now.

Stephen: Those are opportunities even for individuals, not necessarily universities or non-profits. It’s anyone with an actual, working cubesat.

Sandy: Anyone with a cubesat who can get connected with the right people. Its still “friend of a friend” and that’s the barrier. I like what Interorbital did. Interorbital did it the old capitalistic way. If you have the money, we will fly you — straight out dealing. I’m not good with the backroom dealing, and the this-that-and-the-other.

Stephen: They’re kind of like the FedEx. You give us this money and we will put it up there.

Sandy: Exactly. The cubesat community is more like the mafia. “Hey, I know someone, and they will do a favor for you.”

ITAR and other regulatory issues

Stephen: One of the things I was really curious about, because — I used to be an engineer. I worked for a defense contractor. I was a mechanical engineer. One of the things they always stressed was ITAR — International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Was that an issue when you were posting all your stuff? I know a lot of it is off-the-shelf components. Picosats — was that ever an issue? That’s something I was really curious about.

Sandy: Some of ITAR could be summarized as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Stephen: I know there are several issues.

Sandy: I have not run into any ITAR issues, precisely for the reason you gave. I am doing off-the-shelf, openly available materials. That said, I am trying to avoid ITAR and policy as much as possible right now, because it is very confusing and it’s a very unsettled territory right now. One of the issues with going with a broker like Interorbital is that they are handling the mountain of paperwork. The joke is that you need to have a stake of paperwork equal to the height of your rocket, before you can launch.

Stephen: I heard that.

Sandy: They are handling a lot of the permission issue, that when I give them the satellite and they check it and accept it that’s going to handle a lot of permission issues.

That said, there are things you cannot fly. You cannot fly an imaging detector that points at the earth without getting special permission. You cannot fly a broadcast device even for commanding or communicating with your satellite without negotiating spectrum with either the FCC or the International IARU for amateurs.

There are some policy stuff that I have to step into. Some of these things that I am discovering or blundering into are why I am doing the blog and the book, so that other people can say, Oh, okay, and be informed.

Stephen: Definitely. You are talking about broadcasting. Your spacecraft is going to send the signal back to earth — you have to get the FCC involved?

Sandy: FCC if I was doing it as for private spectrum, but if I am using amateur ham radio which I am then the IARU is the negotiating body and you basically give them your launch window and they negotiate out who is using spectrum. A couple of requirements are, typically, you will get no more than 10% of any given orbit. So, for a 90-minute orbit you get maybe nine minutes of contact.

Stephen: Okay.

Sandy: You have to be able to shut down your transmitter instantly if it is infringing in some way, shape, or form. One technical solution there that I recommend people do have your transmitter automatically shut down within any 10-minute period so that you actually have to activate it to turn on. That way you are not going to have a promiscuous satellite that is corrupting the spectrum.

Ground Communications Networking – GENSO

international space apps challenge

Sandy: I just recently also discovered GENSO which is an ESA –European Space Agency– sponsored network for picosatellite communication. The idea is that you get hardware that matches their system, hook up to their server and you get to use any other GENSO node that’s participating, to command your satellite as long as you make your antenna and system available to other satellite people. There is some interesting stuff growing now in the smallsat/picosatellite realm.

Stephen: That’s really cool! So there’s a whole European communications network for satellites? For small satellites?

Sandy: I found one, actually, that has several U.S. universities and partners participating already. It is for the amateur and university level space.

Stephen: There is no issue for you participating as an American citizen in the European network?

Sandy: I know that U.S. universities have participated. I don’t know if I as an individual can participate. That is one of the things I am doing some research on.

Regulatory Hurdles – the New High Bars

Stephen: What’s going to be harder? Building your spacecraft or getting through all of the regulations to build your spacecraft and to launch it?

Sandy: Originally I thought it would be an engineering challenge. I would have to learn a lot of engineering and a lot of fabricating and this and that. It does turn out that the figuring out what to do in the policy stuff is about as hard. [Laughs.]

Stephen: Amazing. I talked with Michael Clive who started the Mojave Makerspace. One of the questions I asked him was, “is it possible to make space missions out of makerspaces?” What was interesting was, he took the human side of it. He didn’t really talk about the technology. It was taken for granted that the technology’s there. But it’s really more human management. Can you organize people to do this? We have gotten away from the technologies as the limiting factor. It’s almost like the people and the policies is now what is holding us back.

University Involvement

Sandy: It is. That is where the universities are stepping up. There are several universities that will do a balloon build — you build a balloon payload in a weekend, as a senior-level project or similar things. There are some team-ups of Wallops launch facility in Virginia for doing sounding types of launches.

Brown University recently announced they’re open-sourcing their plans for picosatellite building. They are sending up a scheme– it’s basically xenon strobes so that people can see their own satellite.

The idea is: anyone can do this. It’s become now a team and an organizing effort more than a technical challenge. I like that. That’s what’s going to commoditize space in a good way. It’s like the early Internet was only connecting some government and university sites and then everyone was able to get on through various channels. I think space is going to get that way. That is how we are going to get into space. Not with massive efforts but with lots of teeny efforts.

Stephen: That’s how HP and Apple were all built in garages and they grew into huge companies.

Sandy: That’s a really big garage. [Laughs]

Stephen: Exactly. You are building it in your basement. How cool would that be? 10 years from now you’ve got a satellite business and yes I started it in my basement.

Commoditization through Standards

Stephen: I see cubesats and picosats as the shipping containers of space where you have got the standard form factor. Anything that can fit in this form factor and weigh this much, we will just stick it on a rocket and launch it up. I think that is a huge advance for space technology.

Sandy: It’s also where we are going to get our next generation of engineers, hardware or mechanical engineers like yourself or electrical engineers. Because now they don’t have to be rocket scientists. They can just take something like a BasicX-24 board or an Arduino board and figure out something that they want to try that you can only do in microgravity — in zero gravity — or a new space propulsion or a new detector concept and be, like, “I can fly this. I don’t have to worry about getting it there.” I mean, imagine — going with your FedEx analogy — if, to send the package, you actually had to actually contact each driver and figure out all the mapping and all. You wouldn’t have anything.

Stephen: The politics and what county you can and can’t drive through. Yes, it is a nightmare.

Calliope Mission Choice – Why Ionospheric Music?


Stephen: Going back to your project for a sec: what made you decide that you are going to sample the ionosphere and send back files? How did you decide to do that particular mission?

Sandy: At the time, I was wrapping up grad school. Because I worked for a time and then I went back to get my degree later in life. I was talking with my grad advisor, went into orbital [unintelligible] and we were brainstorming ideas to send into space. He came up with what was probably a $1M idea, which was to send up a satellite where people could record the sound of their farts and then send it back down to earth. I thought: that was great, people would pay for that, that’s wonderful, that’s … not what I wanted to do.

I tried to think about what I wanted to do and I found a company in Canada called Infusion Systems that makes I-CubeX sensors for performance artists. People that want to do kinetic things that track movement or magnetism. And they also– some robotics people use it.

[I had] the idea of a sensor that converts a magnetic field to MIDI data, which is what keyboards send out. Or, they have electric sensors and light sensors and it all converts it to MIDI. And I thought: what if you flew that into space? What if you converted all of the space measurements and you did sonification to convert that into music instead? So that, instead of looking at a graph — which is not immediately obvious to someone that doesn’t know the science behind it — you were hearing the pace of space.

We are hearing now about space weather. Space is a hostile environment. We think it is very boring and still; we don’t have a sense how active things are. I don’t know myself how active things are going to be in space.

Is this satellite going to fly along and just, every now and then, every hour, there will be a solar effect? Some noise, some flare-up? Or is it going to be constantly popping with levels ebbing and flowing? It’s going through the ionosphere which is where the auroras happen.

I am anticipating that every 90 minutes it’s going to be going at least once through a region of high activity and you’re going to hear a huge ramp-up. You’re going to think, “Wow, this is what the astronauts are going through as they are go around space. This is what space has. It’s not like the movies. It has its own natural rhythm.”

When I found out there is a kit for the satellite that’s promising a launch and off-the-shelf sensors that convert to music, it just sort of fell out from that. That’s when Project Calliope Music from the Ionosphere came into being.

Stephen: Nice.

Music Production Issues – Getting Downlink Slices

Stephen: Since you are getting about 9 minutes of radio time per 90-minute orbit, will you be able to transmit the entire orbit — everything that you picked up? Or is it only going to be enough time to transmit a portion of that orbit?

Sandy: I suspect only a portion of the orbit, so figuring out what chunks to sample… If I am just using the ground station of my house with a ham pointed antenna I probably don’t always want to sample when it is over my house, because that would be the same thing every single orbit. I will probably want to have it choose different portions of the orbit and send down. That’s still a work in progress.

Figuring out the data handling is still going to be an active part of what I’m doing. But the idea is to– when I talk to musicians — because we are going to make it royalty-free, so any musician who wants to remix it into a piece, it’s like whale songs from the 70s, any musician that wants to use as ambient or as a track, they can put it in their music. I really only need short segments. A minute or two or three would be great.

If I can get — ultimately — one full 90-minute orbit in pieces just by sampling 10 orbits over the course of a couple of weeks I would be very, very happy. One album. I’ll get one album out of it. [Laughs]

Stephen: When you want your next album you have to launch another spacecraft.

Sandy: I’m game, I’m game.

Other Exciting Picosatellite Projects

Stephen: What are some other things that you could have done or you have seen other people do with cubesats or picosats? What other missions are possible now? And budget?

Sandy: I saw one team — they are trying to put an optical sensor in just to see if they can do star tracking and acquiring the moon with a picosatellite. They can practice spinning the satellite to acquire an object, which would be great if you are trying to plan something to go to the moon — First you’d have to find it.

There’s the Brown group that is sending a strobe light that you can track the satellite by the naked eye from Earth, which is a neat one.

There’s — I think it’s Slicer Satellite [sic – probably KickSat – ed.], where it’s a single cubesat that contains 300 one-chip FM transmitters which will send a Sputnik-like beep-type message. They are testing the idea of one cubesat deploying lots of even smaller satellites.

There are several people testing ion and pulse plasma drives. A drive the size of a pencil that will fit on the satellite like this and actually give it a small steady thrust.

I became affiliated with a place called Capital College. They had a team for several years working on a project called Velcrosats — use picosatellites to look at orbital debris removal. The idea is if you have something like the International Space Station, it has to reposition if there is some incoming debris. What if, instead of repositioning, you could send out 3 or 4 cubesats as a MIRV to intercept the debris and deorbit it for you? It could be a viable strategy for satellites. So, prototyping orbital debris removal is another possible plan. Those are just some of the concepts bouncing around.

Stephen: They are so much more affordable that you can try different ideas. Maybe the Velcrosats don’t work but you are not out much money. It probably gives you another idea — this didn’t work but we could try this instead. Just keep iterating and trying different technologies.

Sandy: Exactly. It’s a cheap way to prototype and in the process the people building it are now suddenly becoming satellite builders, which they can carry on.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities


Stephen: As you have gone through this I’m really curious about the new entrepreneurial possibilities by these markets and makers. What kind of things have you seen that have popped up in the satellite maker community that– new businesses have been built? New technologies?

Sandy: Interorbital us selling cubesat kits for $8,000 with a promise of a launch. Even if the launch doesn’t happen from Interorbital, I definitely got my money’s worth. That’s the cost of taking a couple of courses in satellite building. I basically self-taught myself because of what they did. They are an entrepreneurial outfit, most definitely.

There is a marketing fellow in England that contacted me saying, “What kind of marketing stuff we could do with a picosatellite?” Someone from an international aid organization said, “We have a problem with journalists being able to get their message out in remote areas. Could a picosatellite help evade censorship?” I’ll leave it for you to percolate on some of the thoughts that might be.

Look at The Pirate Bay in Sweden. They are looking to fly blimps in order to boost their ability to get the message out. If you have someone that’s willing to ignore licensing or in a country with different licensing, you can start getting to the black hat area of it. The entrepreneurial area also has some caution areas! All policy is not a bad thing necessarily for space, but there is a lot of interesting things. A lot of them go with marketing or communications. The science and engineering is a driver of technology but it is not the thing that lets people cash out.

Wrapup, and Future Work

Stephen: Interesting. Thank you so much. I really appreciate chatting with you. I’d love to see how this goes, so I will definitely stay in touch.

Sandy: I was writing every week on the satellite, and then I got a new day job, so that put a hit into it. One caution: it takes more time than you think. But not as much time as it took two decades ago.

Stephen: Where can we read your blog? Where can we find more about your project?

Sandy: is where I write weekly about my own satellite build. As you noted from O’Reilly Press and their maker series, we have the four books coming out that walk through how to build a satellite, how to have it survive in orbit, how to do communications and what instruments will work in space. That’s pretty much the full package — although, just today, I realized we need a fifth book: how to put rocket steering and attitude control on a satellite. I’ll have to find someone to write that one too.

Stephen: I am looking forward to it.

Special Thanks to Michael Turner of Project Persephone for editing this transcript. 
Stephen Murphey is a geek who loves to build stuff. He spent a few years building space stuff, and a few more helping entrepreneurs build businesses. Today, we have access to tools and resources unheard of 10 years ago…and we can use it for DIY space exploration. He thinks that’s pretty cool…
This article originally appeared here on the DIY Space Exploration Blog. Republished under creative commons license.