A $1000 Tiny Personal Satellite

If you ever read any old magazines, you might be surprised at how inexpensive things used to be. A U.S. postage was six cents, a gallon of gas was $0.34, and the same amount of milk was $1.07. Everything is relative, though. The average household income back then was under $8,000 a year (compared to over $53,000 a year in 2014). So as a percentage of income, that milk actually cost about seven bucks.

The same is true of getting into orbit. Typical costs today just to get something into orbit has gone from–no pun intended–astronomical, to pretty reasonable. Lifting a pound of mass on the Space Shuttle cost about $10,000. On an Atlas V, it costs about $6,000. A Falcon Heavy (when it launches) will drop the cost to around $1,000 or so. Of course, that’s just the launch costs. You still have to pay for whatever you want to put up there. Developing a satellite can be expensive. Very expensive.

Satellites are expensive because they have to operate in a very harsh environment. Then there’s the “integration costs” of putting your payload on a launch vehicle, which can run up to $35,000 per pound).

[Jekan Thanga] at Arizona State University wants to reduce the cost of doing space projects. He claims his SunCube can go to the International Space Station for just $1,000. If you want to do something in low Earth orbit, that could run $3,000. Granted, this still isn’t dirt cheap, but how many of us have spent at least that on building a 3D printer or a high-end gaming rig?

If you add in hackerspaces and other groups of builders, the possibilities are even greater. Ham radio operators have done this for years, banding together to build and launch satellites. Keep in mind, though, that at that price, the satellite is tiny: only 35-100 grams, and just over an inch on each side. When the Falcon Heavy launches, the price of getting these in orbit could drop in half.

The SunCube is technically a femtosat. If you want to look at something a little bigger, we covered cubesat design last year.

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