Citizen Space Science

On Friday 12 September our newest Studio Resident Michael Johnson from JA treated us to a very exciting Lunchtime Talk about Citizen Space Exploration and the Personal Space Age.

JA was created to ensure opportunities exist to allow any private individual to participate in the peaceful hands on robotic exploration of space. They create, encourage, fund, manage or otherwise support a wide range of open source, open access projects to make this a reality. From making specific pieces of infrastructure available to the global community, to conceiving and executing complete orbit missions, JA provides code, tools and ideas in an open source, open access way for use by any students, professionals and private individuals who want to explore space.  

Michael introduced the talk by giving us all a recap about the developments made in space exploration since the first successful space mission; the launch of Sputnik 1. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite, that the Soviet Union launched it into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. Since then, there have been massive further developments such as the Apollo Programme, the Space Shuttle, the Mars Rover and the International Space Station. These are undoubtedly great developments, but Space is still relatively unexplored. Michael told us that if you combined the distance travelled by all space landers, you wouldn’t make it from Bristol to Bath! Missions are expensive and infrequent, funding is tight and missions tend to be risk averse, meaning that space exploration is generally a spectator activity for the public.

Michael then talked about a possible solution; a pocket spacecraft that an individual can afford to buy, launch and operate with little or no technical expertise, thus ushering in the personal space age, the era of exploration of space by private individuals for science, general interest and profit.  This has become possible due to developments in technology such as smartphones, systems on a chip and open source software and hardware. The public are becoming able to move gradually from spectators to participants.  A simple example of that is the NASA initiative where members of the public where encouraged to  ‘Send their name to Mars.’  It was clearly successful as more than 1.2 million names were submitted to their website over a one year period, which the engineers then etched onto a silicon wafer of microchips, that was sent into space. With over 1.2million people taking part it is clear there is a huge interest in personal space science. Michael then ran us through the developments in technology and the falling cost of space exploration:

<$100,000 Mission

Michael introduced us to the CubeSat, a CubeSat is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research that usually has a volume of exactly one litre, and typically uses commercial off-the-shelf electronics components. Beginning in 1999, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to help universities worldwide to perform space science and exploration. It is the start of the relatively low cost commodity spacecraft, as it costs $50k to place a CubeSat on an existing space mission. Over the last ten years about sixty have been launched. Within the CubeSat you can put whatever electronic technology you would like, costing from a few £k (e.g. PhoneSat) or as high as a few million (ExoplanetSat.) This technology can then be tracked via myGroundStations which is a project to build an open source, open access Redundant Array of Inexpensive Ground Stations (RAIGS) to support CubeSat, PocketQub and other nanosatellite missions. All you need to host one of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) receivers to track the positioning is a clear view of sky, WiFi internet and room for a small omni antenna. You can find out more and sign up to host the LEO here. Although the high cost of the launch means that this type of space exploration is not accessible for the general public it has still shows the drastic reduction in cost compared to the NASA launches. Michael then talked about other ways of sharing the cost of launching the CubeSat by dividing up the space within it.

<$200 Mission

An example of the reduced cost is a kickstarter funded experiment by Michael Johnson and Zac Manchester, a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University. Over the last several years Michael, Zac and various collaborators designed, built, and tested a very tiny and inexpensive spacecraft called Sprite that can be built and launched into low Earth orbit for just a few hundred dollars each. You can find out more about the Sprite here. After the Sprites are deployed from CubeSat, they will track them and record their radio signals using a worldwide network of amateur ground stations to demonstrate their communication capabilities. It will also enable them to gather data on how long the Sprites stay in orbit and how well their electronics hold up in the harsh space environment. As they are planning to launch the CubeSat into a low-altitude orbit, the Sprites will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere within a few days or weeks, leaving no trace of space debris. CubeSat itself will last somewhat longer, but should burn up in the atmosphere within a few months. With 315 backers they managed to raise $74,586  more than double of their $30,000 goal, see the kickstarter page here.  For $300 Micahel and Zac were offering people the chance to have their very own Sprite in space with their initials in its radio transmissions. By sharing the cost of the CubeSat and hopefully getting a free launch this was one of the first major initiatives from any individual to make space exploration cheap enough for members of the public. Michael told us that although the cost is massively reduced he wanted to make it even more accessible, he wants people to be able to ‘buy’ a spacecraft the same way they would a game, CD or ticket to the theatre.

To find out more you can visit:

If you have any questions please email Michael on: