European Space Agency offered us an opportunity to present our concept for a chance to test it on the OPS-SAT mission. This is going to happen during their workshop in Darmstadt, on June 18 and the tickets to Germany are already booked!
A few words about OPS-SAT: it is a small satellite, 3U cubesat with the deployable solar panels, fitted with a number of payload instruments such as optical imaging camera, fine-guidance attitude control system, and various radio and optical communication equipment, scheduled to launch in Q4 2019.
OPS-SAT mission is very similar to ours, that is having an ability to safely run third-party software code on its flight computer and use any of the payload instruments. You can read more about OPS-SAT here: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Operations/OPS-SAT
Our goal is to test a part of our technology, specifically the mission envelope protection middleware that would allow the relatively inexperienced users to safely operate our future satellite in space using the mission software they can develop. Once we can demonstrate that is possible to achieve the required levels of safety and reliability for user software operations, it would be a big step forward to make our goal a reality – to allow anyone in the world to be able to control a real spacecraft in orbit around Earth and beyond!
We want to build and launch a CubeSat unlike any other before.
In addition to the standard necessary subsystems, there will be a dedicated user-accessible on-board computer; through using this computer we will provide access to anyone able and willing to develop and upload their own mission software. This will allow them to control the satellite, commanding spacecraft subsystems and payload instruments to perform tasks within operational safety margins. Such a platform will be the first dedicated to providing an opportunity for the masses to try their skills at software development and mission operations directly in the space environment.
The primary strength of this mission design is that it will drastically lower the barrier for parties and individuals interested in creating their own projects in space, both financially and logistically. We will also make accessing it as easy as logging into a web server VM. Here is the layout of our system – nothing overly complex:
Of course, things in practice are not as easy as they appear in theory. Inviting people not previously familiar with requirements of software development for demanding conditions of space environment to upload their software to our satellite is a sure way to prematurely end its mission in its first week, if not the hour. So, there is a need to design the entire system in such a way that the probability of such an outcome is minimized.
Everything matters – from the choice of programming language for the users to the quality of ground verification and validation pipeline and robustness of satellite itself in the case of unforeseen operational scenarios. We will elaborate on those details in the later posts.
At the present day, the easiest way to get into space with a small budget and a team of amateur space explorers is to launch a “CubeSat” –a very small satellite, as a cube of 10x10x10 cm dimensions, with larger satellites also possible in the increments of this volume unit. Hundreds of those has been launched since the early 2000s, by universities, smaller aerospace companies or even dedicated individuals. They can carry a variety of instruments and have already proven to be an extremely successful and cost-effective way of doing space exploration activities. You can see their explosive growth curve for yourself:
However, even the smallest such satellite takes a significant investment of time (on order of years) and money (tens of thousands USD) as well as having to pass regulatory requirements from government agencies and launch providers. These challenges present a significant entry barrier for anyone wishing to launch their own satellite. In addition, even successful launch of a CubeSat is not a guarantee that it will become alive after deployment. The failure rates of those satellites are quite high, and it often takes several attempts to get a reliably operating one in orbit, paying full cost in both time and money each time.
As an example, a 1U cubesat, OSSI-1, was built by a single person, Hojun Song and launched in April 2013. He spent 7 years building it and paid at least $100,000 for the launch alone. Sadly, the satellite never became operational and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere just three months later.
Space exploration is experiencing a renaissance – with the ascendancy of SpaceX and many of the less prominent but no less motivated independent space companies, ongoing nanosatellite boom, rising ambitions of Chinese Space Agency and the fact that more rockets launched in 2018 than ever before since 1991 the new Space Age is clearly upon us.
We all have rejoiced watching the successes of the participants – be it the first launch of Falcon Heavy, test flights of new manned spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing, new Chinese and Indian interplanetary missions as well as many successful NASA and ESA missions. The privileged few of us have been not just watching, but actively participating in the space exploration research and engineering activities – students, scientists, aerospace industry professionals or civil servants in national space agencies.
However, the vast majority of people excited about new space adventures have only limited options in doing something space-related. Amateur radio enthusiasts can listen for satellite telemetry and people with data science and programming skills can work with data from satellite instruments. But it takes many years of dedicated training and experience to become an astronaut or aerospace engineer even for most talented people. Similarly, entrepreneurship in space industry requires exceptional level of determination and access to significant capital funds – neither Elon Musk, nor Jeff Bezos didn’t start their companies using just “lunch money”. People in disadvantaged communities and living in countries that lack national space agency or strong aerospace industry are very limited in their ability to contribute to the global space exploration efforts.
So there is clearly a problem to solve – remove or reduce the entry barriers of modern space industry for people wanting to become part of it, but currently lacking opportunities to do so.
The story of our project began about a year ago, in March 2018 or so, when a group of fellow students doing Astronautics and Space Engineering course at Cranfield University decided to try to identify a good idea for a space startup company. After a few attempts, the idea of a satellite that would allow third-party users to upload and run their software code emerged.
We think it is a excellent idea to try, as this approach can allow anyone in the world to become a space explorer in the truest sense of this word.