Flying satellites in space might seem like a real stretch
for the amateur. In fact, for decades the amateur
radio community has been building and flying their
series of amateur satellites under the guidance of AMSAT
(The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation)
Furthermore, amsats have been first in a number
of satellite technologies including store and forward
messaging and dopplar location for search and
rescue. See Highlights
of Space Radio for more examples of amsat accomplishments.
Amsats have also become the models for the smallsat
revolution. More and more spacecraft, such as the space
probes Lunar Prospector
and the Mars
Global Surveyor, as well as low earth orbit comsats
are built small and specialised and in relatively short
times. This goes against the traditional approach of
huge general purpose spacecraft (see, for example, the
probe to Saturn) that take many years to build.
Today there are dozens of university student
groups around the world building micro (10-50kg) and
nano (1-10kg) satellites for scientific research and
as technology demonstrators. These satellites provide
tremendous educational opportunities for the students.
The key to the success of amsats and student
satellites is obtaining a cheap ride to orbit.
This usually is provided by the piggyback ride.
This technique was pioneered by the Amsat community.
Small satellites can ride piggyback because most rockets
provide excess thrust for the mass of a typical satellite
and for its desired orbit. So dead weight ballast
is added. The OSCAR I group convinced the Air Force
in 1961 to carry OSCAR I instead of this ballast
for one of its Discovery satellite launches. A release
mechanism freed the craft once the final stage reaches
the proper orbit.
Some satellites have been released by the shuttle.
The French and Russian student-built Spoutnik,
a working replica of the original, was actually hand
launched by Cosmonauts on Mir.
The spacecraft will use the same structure as
AO-40 (formerly Phase 3-D) that was launched into
earth orbit in the fall of 2000.
The document P5A-to-Mars!(712k
pdf) describes the technical challenges and solutions
for such an ambitious mission. It also mentions the
possibilities of a sub-satellite that could be released
once the spacecraft reaches Mars orbit. The German
Mars Society has proposed a craft that would release
that would provide measurements of the Mars atmosphere.
Like AO-40, the Mars probe will piggyback on an Ariane
5 launch and use the same 400 N propulsion system. (We
expect they will solve the problem that caused the that
nearly destroyed the AO-40 and prevented it from reaching
the desired highly elliptical orbit.)
The Phase 3-E
project was also approved that will test in earth orbit
various techniques and technologies for the Mars mission.
AO-40 cost about $4 million that was raised from AMSAT,
ham radio operators, and other sources. The Mars probe
will cost more than this and will required that get
considerable outside contributions.
This is a follow-on mission to A0-40 ( Phase 3-D before
launch, see below)
and also a precurser to the Mars P5-A mission mentioned
above. It will be launched as a "communication
and scientific platform into a highly elliptical orbit
An engine misfiring early in the AO-40 mission prevented
it from meeting many of its objectives, including the
placement into a large elliptical orbit that would provide
long periods of visibility to amateur ground stations
in the northern hemisphere. Several transmitters on
AO-40 also failed to work.
P3-E will attempt to correct these problems. It will
"serve as communication platform for the nearly
2 million radio amateurs worldwide. They constitute
a network for further exploration of the so called 'uncoordinated
multiple access', to provide simultaneous and freely
available service to a large number of groundstations."
It will also serve as a test platform for the Mars
(Phase 3D) Project
A0-40 ( Phase 3-D before launch) was the most ambitious
amateur satellite built and launched and cost about
million, with much of the funding coming from amateur
radio enthusiasts. Launched on Nov.15, 2000 via a piggyback
ride on an Ariane V vehicle. Unfortunately,, the vehicle
suffered a major mishap due to a failure
of the propulsion system that was to put it into
the final orbit. The satellite, in fact, went completely
silent for two weeks and was feared lost but eventually
contact was restored. A number of subsystems were never
restored but gradually some functionaliity was activated
and its perigee was lifted to over 800km using an amonia
gas system intended for station keeping. The satellite
remained active until January of 2004 when it experienced
a catastrophic failure of the main battery.
The project sought to provide amateur radio users with
a satellite with a number of advanced features that
put it far ahead of previous AMSAT spacecraft:
The satellite was to be placed on a large elliptical
orbit that would make it visible for long periods
to North American, Europe and Asia.
It had much higher power and sensitivity
than previous Amsats, allowing for cheaper, simpler
Microwave transponders would bringnew capabilities
France recently launched the two IDEFIX amateur picosats.
The amateur radio transmitters are attached to the third
station booster of the Ariane rocket that launched the
Spot 5 main payload. The battery powered transmitters
will remain in orbit for about 40 days.
- 20kg microsat project developed by students.
Stensat Group Stensat
was a small (12 cubic inch, 0.5 kg) satellite for
use by amateur radio operators world wide with a single
channel mode "J" FM voice repeater. Stensat was developed
by amateur enthusiasts in the Washington DC area and
was a part of Stanford University's OPAL
Group has since developed a series
The O.S.O. is an OpenSource space program. OpenSource
means we work together to design, develop, manufacture,
and assemble spacecraft. This means that we will need
a lot of people with a lot of skills and not just
designers and mechanist but lawyers, researchers,
fundraisers, and things I haven't even thought of
yet. So if you want to be a member, then look around
the site at the ever expanding amount of resources,
and see if you would like to be a part of this daunting
our goal is to change the way space flight is looked
at. most people think that space is only for governments
and huge companies. For the most part they are right
but we are going to change that by brining people
from all walks of life who want to be a part of something
bigger to make something that people all around the
globe can look up in the night sky and see, and maybe
one day look out a window onto our little blue marble.
More Amateur Satellite Projects
As launch costs go down and more cubesat and other nanosat
projects are successful, more and more groups and even
individuals are being enticed to start a satellite project.
Here is a sampling of such projects.
an ionospheric detector transmitting sonifiable
data back to Earth for web streaming and remixing.
Conceptually, it's a musical instrument in space,
played by space rather than just after-the-fact
sonified. I like the idea of flying something in
space whose purpose is to make music until it dies--
music from science. I am spiraling towards the solution:
detectors, programming, electronics, all in progress
and integrating towards the result.
The CubeSat is a pico-satellite design from Bob Twiggs
while he was at Stanford's Space
Systems's Development Laboratory. It was developed
in collaboration with Cal Poly State University at San
Luis Obispo. The motivation was to develop a standard,
off-shelf satellite small satellite kit that sould be
cheaply built, easily adapted for different missions,
and launched in clusters so that per satellite launch
cost will be low.
A Cubesat is about 10cm per side and weighs a kilogram.
Student groups should be able to build and launch a
cubesat for around $50k. Eventually, multiple cubesats
will work together in formation to provide the capabilities
of a single large satellite.
The Cubesat initiative has been very successful. Hundreds
of cubesat projects have been undertaken and many have
gotten to space. Lower cost launch opportunities have
become available such as piggybacking on SpaceX Falcon
9 launches and this has been a boon to the movement.
Cubesat projects now extend beyond education and into
government research and commercial areas.
Here are some Cubesat resources and a sampling of student
"...The main objective of this initiative is
to create a network of students, educational institutions
and organisations (on the Internet) to facilitate
the distributed design, construction and launch of
(micro)-satellites and potentially more complex projects
such as a moon-lander."
The Student Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite is
a small, optically reflective spherical spacecraft.
It was assembled by the Naval Research Laboratory in
Washington, DC from eleven hundred sets of aluminum
mirror blanks machined by Utah technology students and
shipped in kits by project officials to schools around
the world (see list of participanting
schools) where students polished
The satellite (diameter of 48cm or 19in) will be very
bright and easily visible to the naked eye. The satellite
will be tracked by students who will record their observations
online. Gradually the satellites orbit will decay and
the rate of the decay will be proportional to how much
the upper atmosphere is heated by solar activity. Thus
monitoring of sunspots is part of the project activities.
StarShine will be deployment by NASA from a Hitchhiker
canister on the Space Shuttle Discovery into a highly
inclined low earth orbit on mission STS-96 in May of
Project Starshine Telemetry - Starshine 3 also
has an amateur radio transmitter. This site gathered
and disseminated "Project Starshine telemetry data
submitted by students and hams around the world."
For details on communicating with Starshine 3, see communication
A student group at Brown university is developing the
spacecraft with the goal of ramming it into the Moon.
The purpose of this is explained
Meteoroids routinely hit the Moon’s surface. In December,
for example, one meteoroid hit the edge of Mare Imbrium
with the force of about 150 pounds of TNT, creating
a flash as bright as starlight. Meteoroids also pelt
Earth, but the debris burns up when entering the atmosphere
– a protective layer that the Moon lacks.
Right now, however, scientists can’t accurately calculate
the size of meteoroids that hit the Moon. By slamming
a spacecraft with a known size, weight and speed onto
an area with a predetermined mineral make-up, FLASH
would create baseline data that would allow scientists
to calibrate the size of meteoroids that create natural
This university student project was designed as a
"100kg micro-satellite to be launched at the
beginning of the third Millennium to investigate the
Lunar South Pole's suitability for the first permanent
It will research the morphology and mineralogy of
the Moon's surface, determine the physical properties
of the Lunar exosphere and magnetosphere and, above
all, will look for sub-surface water deposits.
This European space project is primarily being designed,
built and operated by young spaceprofessionals and
A primarily German university project. "LunarSat
mission is currently operated by a cluster of Universities
under the lead of the Astronautics Division of the Technical
University of Munich/Germany" with support from
The project involved a number of educational outreach
projects such as a MoonCivilization online game
with the main aim of virtually colonization of the Moon
This fun concept has been developed by the amateur rocketry
group JP Aerospace
and now has several hundred students involved.
Simple table tennis balls are split and
the students put some sort of experiment inside. It
is then sealed up for launch.
The experiments range from the extremely
simple, like studying the effects of vacuum on a marshmallow,
to the quite sophisticated, like a cosmic ray counter.
JP Aerospace took some pongsats up already
in a high
altitude balloon and expects in 2011 to launch them
with from small rockets on their airships.
Student participants in this annual contest will see
their soda-can sized payloads go to only a mile high
or so but they will learn many of the techniques and
technologies required for building and flying orbital
Students in the Department of Astronautics at the
Technische Universität Berlin, Germany are developing
a clever compact telescope design for space. A prototype
of the will be tested in microgravity during a parabolic
... the UNIFORM project aims to field a functional
satellite constellation and ground station
network that will yield usable data at a fraction
of the price of commercially built satellites.
More broadly, project organizers expect UNIFORM
to energize Japan’s capacity for building
microsatellites and spread that know-how throughout
Asia through international cooperation, according
to Hiroaki Akiyama, a professor at Wakayama
University in western Japan, which is leading
the project in conjunction with six other
The primary objective of the Challenge
is for teams of university students (undergraduate
and graduate) to design and build an operational
small-satellite, based on commercially-available,
"off-the-shelf" components. The satellites will
undergo full launch and space environment qualification,
and the ultimate goal of the CSDC is to launch
the winning satellite into orbit in order to
conduct science research. The CSDC will begin
at participating universities and colleges in
September, 2010; the winning satellite(s) will
be selected in October, 2012.
The EyasSAT ESS™ is a set of circuit boards
that plug together to form a complete satellite.
Each board or module functions as one of the
sub-systems. They stack by plugging them together
using connect-through headers. Add a case
with separation switch, solar panels, light
sensors, and a thermal control surface and
you have a complete satellite for the lab
"..operate a communications payload aboard
an Australian satellite in 2002, a key component
of the Store and Forward Mars Analogue Research
System (SAFMARS) project. SAFMARS will allow email
communication between isolated locations including
Mars Society Research Stations and the internet.
Mars Society members will be able to communicate
with remote field crews from the comfort of their
own home and the system will allow monitoring
and control of research assets anywhere in the
The Kolibri was a small satellite developed in Russian
as a non-governmental, non-commercial project for
students. (It is a follow-on project to the Spoutnik
satellite mentioned below.)
The satellite was taken to the ISS in November 2001
on a Progress re-supply ship. It was released by
remote control from the station in late February
Russian and Australian students communicated with
the satellite over amateur satellite frequencies.
It carried several scientific sensors including
a magnetometer and charged particle detector whose
data the students monitored.
The spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere in April
Spoutnik/RS17 A French and Russian students built a
working re-creation of the original Russian Sputnik
satellite that began the space age in October
4, 1957. (See also the HobbySpace History
page.) This new version washand
launched (mov) by cosmonauts on Mir on Nov.
4, 1997. The new satellite had a similar radio
beacon as the original and was in heard on
the ground until Dec. 29, 1997.
- South Africa's First satellite This South African satellite was
built by graduate students at the University of
Stellenbosch. It was launched as a piggyback payload
on a Delta II from Vandenberg on Feb. 23, 1999.
The satellite holds amateur radio transponders and
several other instruments.
"..digital store-and-forward capability
and a voice 'parrot' repeater that will be used
primarily for educational demonstrations. The
unit has two VHF and two UHF transmit-receive
systems. In addition to amateur radio and school
science payloads, SunSat carries two NASA experiments
and an experimental push-broom imager capable
of taking pictures of Earth. The high-resolution
imager will operate in real time on S-band frequencies.
Images also can be stored in computer RAM aboard
the satellite and then downloaded at lower speeds
for retrieval by hams and schools." - Amsat
bulletin. March 21,1999
Space - "offers off-the-shelf and bespoke
subsystem solutions for small satellites. Our
product range includes spacecraft power systems,
small satellite battery systems, digital and analogue
systems, and R&D and consultancy services."