Does the idea of building your own satellite sound cool? A cubesat is a small space research satellite that fits in an (almost) 10 cm cube and gets deployed by the ISS or other launch vehicles. It does not (relatively) take much to get one launched, other than proving it cannot damage other payloads in the associated launch package. However, let me dampen your excitement with this out-of-the-world statistic: the failure rate for first time cubesat builders is 60%!
Part of the reason for this failure is that many virtual astronauts attempt to build their own cubesat device from scratch. Unfortunately, potential mechanical and electronic (aka software) issues in space, simply do not exist in terrestrial applications.
At the Small Satellite Conference, Max Holliday presented the PyCubed. It is an open source, radiation-tolerant cubesat programmed using CircuitPython. You might know CircuitPython as Adafruit’s MicroPython fork. PyCubed picked the beginner-focused version to send to space.
Target users are students and researchers who need an off-the-shelf like platform to integrate sensors, control algorithms, and payload hardware quickly. The aerospace industry calls off-the-shelf hardware “COTS,” or “commercial off the shelf.” My experience is that neither commercial nor off-the-shelf are absolute terms. So it is attractive that such open source product is acceptable for use in space.
Cubesats have two challenges. First is the hardware. They needed to be radiation tested platforms. For development, you can order your own mechanically PC104-compatible board from OSHPark and the components from a distributor like Avnet using the detailed bill of materials. For a rad-hard board, check out PyCubed’s waiting list.
The PyCubed website has information about their board. If you want to understand cubesat requirements, better then download the NASA CubeSat document as a starting point. You can find CubeSat specific information in this PyCubed white paper.
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Author: James Lewis