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Satellite Building
Hobby moons ...
A video about the ARISSAT-1 project (May 2010)

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 like Orbcomm, 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 Cassini 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.

An excellent introduction to amateur and student nanosats is given in this paper: Introduction to Satellites by Emily Clarke - West Coast Space Symposium - April.2004 (pdf, 1.5M) from the projectoscar.net website. More info at the Project Oscar History.

See also Michael Swartwout's article The promise of innovation from university space systems: are we meeting it? - The Space Review - Oct.12.09. His University-Class Spacecraft resource page provides an extensive tabulation of university satellite projects.

Make Magazine 24: Space released in Oct. 26, 2010 included the article: Making Your Own Satellites by Chris Boshuizen, who described how to "build and launch your own sat for as little as $8,000".

Amateur & Student Satellites
in Space-for-All
Find older articles in the archive ...
Satellite Building News Sources

Amateur Satellites

U.S. headquarters for the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation organization. AMSAT Software AMSAT Books

Listings of AMSAT spacecraft

The Story of AMSAT
Space Satellites from the World's Garage - the history of  the amateur radio satellite. See, also,

AMSAT P5-A: Amateur Mars Satellite & GO-Mars with AMSAT-DL's P5A-Mission
The German AMSAT-DL group recently announced the formal approval of the Phase 5-A project to send a spacecraft to Mars in the 2007 or 2009 launch window.

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 a balloon 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.

Phase 3-E
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 around Earth."

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 P5-A spacecraft.

AO-40 (Phase 3D) Project
A0-40 ( Phase 3-D before launch) was the most ambitious amateur satellite built and launched and cost about $4.5 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 ground stations.
  • Microwave transponders would bringnew capabilities and opportunities.

More resources:

Echo -OSCAR-E - (older website)

The news AMSAT-NA Microsat spacecraft was launched on June 29, 2004.

Mars Projects

AMSAT 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.
The 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 Picosatellite project.
The Stensat Group has since developed a series of satellites.

Univ. of Surrey Small Satellites
University of Surrey was a pioneer in the small satellite revolution and major participant in AMSAT. (It has spun off a company called Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) See, for example, their UoSAT Amateur Satellite. Their website is one of the primary sites for Small Satellite information.

Open Space Organization (O.S.O.)
This group seeks to use an open source approach to spacecraft projects:

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 task.

Our goals
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 AMSAT sites

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.

Student Satellite Projects

Student satellite projects are proliferating, especially since the development of the Cubesat standard. Here are some general information sources.

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 Cubesat projects:


NSF Cubesat Program
The National Science Foundation began a program in 2008 to fund innovative low cost satellite projects based on the Cubesat spacecraft bus. See CubeSat-based Science Missions for Space Weather and Atmospheric Research. Annual proposals must be submited by the deadline of February 10th.

SSDL - Space and Systems Development Lab - Stanford
A leader in the development of microsats and nanosats. The Cubesat was developed there.

SSETI - Student Space Exploration & Technology Initiative
European Space Agency's (ESA) has started this ambitious educational project to involve students into the building of satellites:

"...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."

Space Science and Engineering Laboratory (SSEL) - Montana State University
This program sponsors two student satellite projects:

The SSEL projects were discussed in the following interview:

More Space Agency Sponsored Student Satellite Programs

Project Starshine
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 blanks.

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 1999.

See NASA's Project Starshine site for information on how to track the satellite: Beginner's guide [--Link Dead--]FAQ

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 system specs.

UNITEC-1 - Fly to Venus !
This Japanese satellite is the first university student built satellite to fly beyond the lunar orbit. It was successfully launched on May 20, 2010 as a secondary payaload with the JAXA Venus orbiter Akatsuki.

A student group at Brown university is developing the FLASH spacecraft with the goal of ramming it into the Moon. The purpose of this is explained as follows:

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 lunar impacts.

The project needs to raise several million dollars to take off. More info at Emerging Technologies and their Impact - Technology Review - Aug.22.06.

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 human outpost.

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 students."

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 ESA.

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 by "MoonTeams".

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.

The PongSat Launch (PSL) System "consists of a small reusable sounding rocket launched from an airship". The rockets will reach 100 km. A writeup on the system is provide here: PongSat Launch System - Small experiments flown to space at no cost to students - JP Aerospace (pdf).



CanSat at AAS
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 spacecraft.

The program is upported by American Astronautical Society (AAS), American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), National Space Grant Consortia (NSGC), and Universities Space Research Association (USRA).

CanSat in Europe
ESA now sponsors its own CanSat competition in which student teams build soda-can sized payloads to ride in a sounding rockets or high altitude balloon.

More Student Satellites & Programs

Student Satellites of Historical Interest


Cosmonaut holding satellite   Satellite thrown into orbit
Cosmonaut launching by hand the student built satellite Spoutnik/ RS-17 during a spacewalk at MIR on Nov. 3rd 1997. The functioning replica was built in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the original Spoutnik by French and Russian students. See a video of launch. History of hand-launched satellites given in Space & Beyond: Little Echo of the Beep Heard Around the World - ARRLWeb - Sept.26.01


Student Launch Opportunities

Satellite Information


The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey







Satellite Handbook

Steve Ford
Amazon: US 

The Satellite Projects Handbook
Satellite Projects Handbook
Lawrence Harris - 1996
Amazon: US 
How-to book for setting up a satellite receiving station

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