As we’ve said before, all telescopes really want to be in space. In part 3 of our series on amateur telescope making, we bring you up to speed on the final frontier: amateurs building space telescopes. The hardware and software is available off the shelf, and launches have never been more affordable. The era of amateur space telescopes has arrived.
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest running online astronomy degree program. Visit Astronomy.Swin.Edu.Au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 329: Telescope Making Part Three: Amateur Space Telescopes. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: Good and as we sort of mentioned in the pre-show here, it is bloody cold.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Everywhere across your country and mine.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. We have wind chills of minus 30 Fahrenheit, which is minus 34 Celsius, and the snow, and the drifts is approaching knee deep and is pretty much everywhere, deep enough it’s going to go in the top of your boot.
Fraser Cain: And we mentioned that on – it was on Christmas Day, on New Year’s Day. Christmas Day, the temperature in Winnipeg was colder than the temperature on Mars. It got down to –
Dr. Pamela Gay: New Year’s Day.
Fraser Cain: Minus – on New Year’s Day. Yeah. It got down to minus 51 Celsius, which is, I’m sure, infinity in Fahrenheit, so I mean can you – like I can’t, and so, and my friend was in this and she just said it was incomprehensibly cold.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: Like you just – you do not leave the house. She went out one time.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate. The winner’s of this year’s Rose Bowl, I think I’m required to say, and there were a couple of times it got down to minus 40. It was like pretty much every year in February, but then, one year, it hit minus 70 wind chill. Minus seven zero Fahrenheit wind chill and they closed campus. It’s like one of the very few times in memory they’ve closed campus, because your eyeballs start to freeze over at that temperature.
Fraser Cain: Alright. Well, let’s get rolling.
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Fraser Cain: As we’ve said before, all telescopes really want to be in space, and part three of our series on amateur telescope making will bring you up to speed on the final frontier. Amateur’s building space telescopes. The hardware and software is available off the shelf and launches have never been more affordable. The era of amateur space telescopes has arrived. Now, when you put this topic on the docket, I could not believe my eyeballs, because this is the kind of thing that I would put as the topic, and you would roll your eyes, and you would say, no, no. We’re not ready for that, yet. We’ll – you know a little premature. Let’s wait a couple more years.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Finally, became enough years. We’ve been recording –
Fraser Cain: I guess it did.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Since 2006, and yeah. It’s eight years makes a huge difference. We’ve gone from watching spaceship one, win the xprize, to now, crowd sourcing satellites.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and there have been a couple of these, now, that are coming together, so where do you want to start? Do you want to talk about – well, let’s talk about the various technologies, and new companies, and the things that have come together, the trends that have really made this affordable and available in just the last couple of years.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, so when we say space telescopes, this can mean everything from, well, there’s one called Arkyd, which is being put together by Planetary Resources that’s a bonafide space telescope. Think Hubble, a little bit smaller, but all the bells and whistles of a space telescope, but then, you also have a lot of, basically, soda can sized devices that have a variety of open source technologies on them. Most often, arduino, which are just little circuit chips that are easy to plug into your computer, and code, and your often running, and they’re sending up low cast cameras attached to these arduino, and basically, chucking them off the side of the international space telescope.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and we’ve got to – just like in the last couple of days, when we’re recording this, they attached the Earth cam, which is an Earth facing camera to the International Space Station, which is gonna be broadcasting live views, and it’s a steerable camera, and it was done by a private company, and it was launched to the space station and attached onto the space station, so yeah. I mean I think we’ve got – but I think, ultimately, we’ve got like launches are – costs are coming down, as well.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it’s not so much that the costs are coming down, because that’s still not entirely the case, but if you get your spacecraft small enough, you don’t have to have the cost of the launch go down, because the launch cost is related directly to how much you weigh, so these little craft are piggybacking along with other satellites that are already onboard and paying the bulk of the launch cost, so we’ve actually seen a couple of different launches. There were four of the PocketQube, or PocketQubes, I’m not sure how they’re pronouncing this, that launched on one of the Russian dimper rockets in November. Sky Cube launched some of theirs, also in November, and these – sorry. Ardusat launched two of theirs in November, and these different satellites; they’re literally about the size of a soda can, or smaller.
Fraser Cain: There was a launch – there was, actually, there was a week where the record number of satellites had been launched in one week. It was like 25 satellites in one week, and then, later that week, or the next week, that record got broken by an even larger collection of microsatellites. Same kind of deal, right, and so, you – as you said, you know you can – with the miniaturization of technology, now, you can pack down all of this stuff into this tiny little form factor, and as you said, just stick it into all the nooks and crannies of the launch faring, and off it goes.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And not all of them can count as space telescopes. I mean some of these things are getting launched strictly to reflect back amateur radio signals, are getting launched so that you can tweet to space and have space respond. There’s lots of different reasons that these things are going into space. There was a project by a Cornell graduate student launch, basically, little tiny chips into space. These are the kick sats, but what’s kind of awesome is the fact that there are some of these that are being designed so that they can take pictures, either of space or of Earth. Either case, you’re looking at optics. I’ll call that a telescope and they’re accessible to school groups and private corporations.
Fraser Cain: So talk me through this, then. Let’s say that I am a wealthy individual. I’ve already spent a cars worth of money on my wonderful telescope and I’ve got this, you know, great big telescope [inaudible] [00:08:09] observatory, and I’ve still got a little money kicking around in the bank, or a lot of money kicking around in the bank, and I want to take it to the next level, so what’s the process, then, if I want to actually design and launch my own space telescope, or my own mission?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, nowadays, you don’t even need to design your own. That’s the kind of awesome thing is projects like PocketQube, spelled with a Q, so P-O-C-K-Q-U-B-E, which is why it might be pronounced slightly different. Okay. They have designed a standardized infrastructure that you can use to launch these pico satellites. They’re looking at anywhere from a few hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars per device, plus launch cost, and they’re hoping to piggy back on other missions. This is one of the ones that they’ve already launched four.
They’re looking at a second launch in Q2 of 2014, so sometime after March, before June, and what they’re doing is they’re saying we figured out the technologies that will work. We are telling you here are the plug and play pieces you have, so instead of going to Newegg and ordering the pieces for your desktop computer, you go to PocketQube and order the pieces you need for your low cost satellite. It’s a new DIY way of looking at exploring space.
Fraser Cain: And so, for all missions, what are you gonna need? You’re gonna need like a power system. You’re gonna need communication system. You’re gonna need some kind of orientation.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right and all of this is designed into what they’re doing, so right. You need a way to keep your orbit oriented, so gyroscopes generally are the way they do this. You’re going to need a power source, whether it be solar, drag induced, onboard battery that lasts however long your mission lasts, and then, you need the sensors that you want in a way to get commands to the mission and data back from the mission, but it’s not all that complex, when you start comparing it to what, well, your smartphone can do, and there’s actually different groups that have, essentially, launched the moral equivalent of a smartphone into space, so these are your satellite phones, essentially.
Fraser Cain: Right and they’re running, I know, like one was just running Android.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. Exactly.
Fraser Cain: Launched a satellite running Android. Worked like a charm. Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So when it comes to your bonafide space telescope, what you’re going to want to do is, probably, partner with Planetary Resources. They’re a commercial company that’s looking to design a whole series of spacecraft. The first one in their Arkyd, or Arkyd series, is a space telescope, and one of the things they did that just about everyone else did, too, is they raised money through Kickstarter, so they were able to raise $1.5 million. They were only planning to raise a million, but they exceeded their goal and they were actually the first of these projects to get funded. They were funded all the way back in 2012, but they still haven’t launched. What they’re doing is a lot more complicated, so it’s gonna take them time. –
Fraser Cain: Yeah and I know that the 1.5 million that they raised is not the actual launch cost of the satellite. It’s a fraction of it. It’s – or not a fraction. It’s a pretty big component of it. I think it’s about a third, or a quarter. Like I think the whole mission is gonna cost more like five or 10 million, but the goal is – I know that their goal is to bring all these costs down, so that these are kind of the shelf, you pick all your pieces, and the cost is more in the million dollar mark, or the hundred thousand dollar mark.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: Like they’re really gonna bring – because at the end of the day, the components, as we said, they’re off the shelf. They’re miniaturized. The smaller they get, the cheaper they get, and it’s really more about hardening and the – like hardening these components to the environment of space.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: But you could, literally, take your smartphone. You could take your iPhone, stick it on a rocket, launch it into space, and it could record video, as it tumbled, and you would have no way to get it back to Earth.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly and its battery would only last about 24 hours.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, so these things will work there, so it’s just a matter, now, of making these more of a commodity, and as the prices come down, the companies are coming on board, and Planetary Resources is one. What are some others?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So on the other price extreme, you have the Ardusat people. They did a different Kickstarter. They were looking to raise 35,000. They, instead, raised $106,000.00, and for them, that was the entire cost of not just the one they planned, but actually, two separate cubesats, and their goal was to put together a platform that, because it’s built purely [inaudible] [00:13:19] using standardized drivers, standardized technology, school groups, clubs, amateurs, DIY hobbyists, commercial outfits that don’t have huge goals can all, essentially, buy time on their satellites to run their experiments, and they’ve partnered with NASA to get their launch costs, essentially, paid for, and they’re, again, working to create a standard open source platform.
They launched both of their spacecraft and they’ve actually been deployed, now, from the International Space Station. You can go to their website, and I’ve linked to all of this off a post on Starstrider.com. You can go to their website and you can actually look to buy slots of time. Right now, you have to spend $1,000.00 minimum. That gives you four separate slots to run experiments, but that’s, in the grand scheme of things, $1,000.00 is something you can feasibly do, as a school group, through selling of a monster number of cookies.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, but I mean you, as a researcher, when you want to get access to telescope time, there is a limited number of telescopes, and even a more limited number of space telescopes, and if you’re a researcher and you want access to them, you, essentially, have to write a wonderful proposal, and then, beg and grabble for telescope time.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: And –
Dr. Pamela Gay: And unfortunately, these still aren’t suitable for professional researchers. These are still educational tools, so we still have a long ways to go.
Fraser Cain: Well, you can look at some of the things, like Canada has the most telescope.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: Also known as the Humble Space Telescope.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: And this – I think it was $8 million to build and launch this telescope, and it’s been used for like gravitational microlensing, and –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Variable stars.
Fraser Cain: And variable stars and things like that, so if you specialized the capabilities of the telescope and deal with all the miniaturization, I’m sure we’re right around the corner from people putting up telescopes for pay telescopes. You know like –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: So we’ll put up a telescope where you’ll pay your $1,000.00 for X amount of time on the scope, and then, you just put that into your research, and you put that into your grant, so instead of both doing your grant and asking for the money, you’ll just ask for the money, or sort of asking – do your grant and ask for telescope time, you’ll do your grant and ask for money and use that money to buy telescope time on one of the optional places.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. I, unfortunately, for a lot of researchers, our needs are so specific that the instruments, not the telescope, but the instruments are in the tens of millions of dollars case, so I think there, we are still another decade out, especially, where NASA has put forward there’s going to be no more massive observatories getting launched in the future, so there’s going to be people driven to try and figure out how to build the low cost instrumentation, but while we can get the smaller systems, the soda can sized systems down to reasonable costs, the Hubble Space Telescope is fairly small, but it’s still the size of a school bus, and that is still out of reach.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Yeah, but I think, as well, I mean the goal with Space X is to really – they haven’t – they’re not there yet, but their goal is to really bring down those launch costs significantly.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, and that’s where it’s the tradeoff between how much the launch costs and how much the telescope costs, because if you’re looking in a few million dollars to a few tens of millions dollars for the instrument, you still have to come up with that money somewhere.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, but I mean with these cubesats, you’re only looking at a few tens of thousands of dollars for the launch costs to incorporate your satellite within a larger pay load. Especially, with these old like ICBMs and stuff. It’s very reasonable.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right, so it’s just a matter of what is your goal, so if I’m trying to do astronomical research, I’m gonna want a mirror that’s bigger than what will fit in a soda can, and that’s where the launch costs are still quite high, and where the instrument costs are still quite high, and the mirror costs are still quite high, but if I want to take basic pictures of the Earth, if I want to take large scale images of the sky, or simple photometry, like they do with most, those are things that I can start to do small. It all depends on your science goals, and unfortunately, most science still requires the school bus sized or larger space telescopes.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. No, but I mean when you think about like some of the telescopes that join us for the virtual star party. I mean we have some people with 14 inch telescopes. I wonder how small a telescope you could make that would give you, out in space, what kind of quality would you get? You know how much smaller could you – like if you launched a four inch telescope into space, that’s bordering on soda can sized. You know three and half inches.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right and that’s actually sort of been happening. There was a space telescope a few years ago that essentially broke, but it’s finder scope was still in use, and it was about that size, but the issue you run into is a four inch scope doesn’t have a lot of light gathering power, and your light gathering power is strictly based on how big that mirror is, and you also don’t have hugely wonderful resolution with only four inches. Only 10 centimeters, or so, so you’re still better off, at that size, to build on the ground. It’s still cheaper to build on the ground and you’ll get better images with your larger mirror on the ground, unless you’re trying to do the very specialized task of photometry on bright objects.
Fraser Cain: Right, or you’re attempting to view wave links that may be blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, you – for that, you’re still gonna run into the problem that the detectors are far larger, so while we can get optical instruments that are smaller, we still haven’t figured out how to get the radio smaller, because that has to do with what’s the wave length. Infrared. Again, you’re running into issues of the wave lengths are bigger. X-ray detectors are larger. Ultraviolet detectors are larger.
Fraser Cain: Now, right now, there are thousands of active satellites.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: There are hundreds of thousands of chunks of space debris of varying sizes, larger than a centimeter. If we’re gonna be allowing more and more people to put up these little tiny satellites, is this gonna add to the space debris problem?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, most of these have a very finite lifespan. They’re being put into lower orbits, so you have the atmospheric drag is pulling them down, and down, and down, and down, and when you’re the size of a soda can, you don’t have any rockets to keep you boosted into your orbit over time, so you’re looking at things that are maybe gonna last a year, at most, and then, happily de-orbit themselves, so what we’re gonna see is more and more shooting stars that aren’t bits of dust, but they’re actually dead satellites.
Fraser Cain: So lets kind of imagine the future, though. Right? Because I mean now that all of this technology – I mean, obviously, a mirror, is a mirror, is a mirror, and you can’t miniaturize the mirror, because then, it just becomes a worse like gathering tool, so you definitely want the largest possible mirror that you can get into space, but everything else is now gotten on to the computer curve where, over time, the price of these – the miniaturization is happening. The price of these things are coming down, you can imagine, and match that with Space X’s goals to lower the cost of space launches by a factor of 10 over the next –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: 10 years, or whatever. What do you see, then? I mean what do you see in the future? Imagine launches are a tenth the price. The miniaturization has been going nonstop for another 10 years. What’s gonna be possible?
Dr. Pamela Gay: At that point, I think it’s going to start to be the equivalent of companies like I Telescope are starting to reach out on orbit and put smaller telescopes on orbit. It’s hard to say what time scale that’s going to take place on, but organizations like the folks telescope, which is also the [inaudible] [00:21:59] telescope network that Google’s put together. These are educational facilities that have already invested surface side millions of dollars into staffing costs, infrastructure costs to put networks of telescopes across the surface of the planet for schools to use, for private companies to rent time on, and individuals to rent time on.
As we move forward, I can see Google; I can see individuals investing in creating not necessarily networks, but first one, and then, multiple smaller sized telescopes on orbit. It’s going to be a long time before it’s individuals who aren’t simply super wealthy who are considering doing this, but it’s already reaching the point where universities are looking at projects that they can test in space. It’s a complicated issue, simply because there is that argument of are you better off spending your money on a very large mirror on the surface of the planet or launching into space, and if you’re launching, are you better of preparing something that goes up and comes back down on a sounding rocket, or are you better investing in something that will stay up much longer, and this is one of those times where I can forecast something and I’m no more likely to be right than the fortune telling machine at the carnival. It’s technology innovating, and it’s very hard to predict how those innovations will take place.
Fraser Cain: Well, but I think you mentioned something that I think is very important, which is that universities will start to get access to be able to use some of their funding, and there’s a ton of aerospace students who’ve never, and [inaudible] [00:23:48], and computer technology who’ve never had a chance to actually be involved in a launch of a mission from beginning to end, and what better practice in preparation for a career down the road being in the aerospace industry, or being in the satellite industry than as part of your graduate – you know your master’s degree, whatever. You designed, built, launched, and maintained a satellite.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And what was cool is when I was researching for this episode, I found two different student groups who’d basically done just that. There was the Kicksat project that was put forward by Zach Manchester, a graduate student at Cornell University, and then, there was the student run space Concordia project. Again, both of these projects were funded through Kickstarter, and these are ways that students are finding to, well, put their ideas on orbit, and one thing that I think is neat to point out is all of these successful projects, so far, have all been on Kickstarter, which is a platform that when you put your idea up, it’s either funded or not.
People’s money doesn’t get spent unless the complete needed funding for a project is reached. India Go Go, which is the main competitor for Kickstarter, has an option that allows you to put your idea up and whatever amount of money you get, no matter how big or small it is, you get to keep that, and I’ve seen some bigger commercial ideas go up on India Go Go that fell flat, did not get near the funding they needed, and I really appreciate the fact that all these successful ones, so far, have consistently been on Kickstarter where they’re saying, look. It’s make it or not. Trust us, and they’ve hit their target.
There’s been a lot of fails on Kickstarter, but the successes have all been there. The first exception might be Mars One. Mars One is currently running in India Go Go campaign to try and raise $400,000.00 towards their first Mars [inaudible] [00:25:55] satellite. They have 20 days to go and they’re about 25 percent of the way to their goal. It’s interesting to see how the bigger companies are using the crowd sourcing, not just as a fundraising mechanism, but also, as an advertising mechanism that raises money for them. That’s kind of a new business model that I find intriguing.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Well, personally, I invest in every one that comes my way. I invest in all the Kickstarters that have anything to do with space exploration, telescopes, amateur satellites, anything that I can get my hands on, and then, we promote them like crazy on Universe Today. I’m really happy to help out anyone who wants to get the word out about the Kickstarter they’re doing. I’m a huge fan of this kind of thing. Whatever we can do to jump – to kick start this future industry. I love it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s gonna be interesting to see just what happens in the next two years. I don’t think it’s two years away. I think it is already started. We’ve already seen launches and I think these next two years are really going to define how [inaudible] [00:27:04] law applies to, well, space exploration.
Fraser Cain: And we will see how good of a fortune teller you are. Awesome. Alright. Well, thanks, Pamela.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Thank you.
Male Speaker: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association. Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at AstronomyCast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12:00 p.m. Pacific, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at CosmoQuest.org.
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Duration: 29 minutes