September 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

DIY satellites reinvent the space race

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high school somewhere on the globe. The teenagers will also learn to plot Katysat's location, get the satellite to send signals to their counterparts at the other school and perform experiments.

While space is no longer the playground of government agencies, most of the private individuals tinkering with travel to the cosmos are incredibly wealthy. Technology entrepreneur Greg Olsen, for instance, is splurging on a junket to the International Space Station early this fall to the tune of about $20 million. Other deep-pocketed space dabblers include Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen

Space Age Klondike Bar
Twiggs began to tinker with the possibility of creating small, cheap satellites in the mid-1980s when research budgets were at risk. In 1994, while teaching at Weber State University in Utah, Twiggs and others worked on a satellite that "was about the size of a lady's hatbox," he recalled.

A few years later, the idea then emerged that a mother satellite could be used to launch smaller, "pico" satellites. An experimental version, which had daughter satellites about the size of a Klondike bar equipped with solar panels, worked well. Later, Twiggs used a 4-inch-long Beanie Baby box as a design ideal.

The configuration of the CubeSats varies, depending on the tasks the designers hope to accomplish. While some have a footprint of about 4 inches by 12 inches, the typical ones are around 4 inches cubed.

The CubeSats get launched out of the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD, designed by Jordi Puig-Suari, a professor at Cal Poly. The spring-loaded P-Pod can carry up to three of the cubes and protects the CubeSats from the primary payload, and vice versa.

Cal Poly's expertise also comes in handy in logistics. Companies such as Eurokot and Kosmotras perform the actual launch, which take place at locations like the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Some of the rockets used in the flights were originally designed for nuclear warheads and launch from silos. Thus, the launches require export licenses and coordination with a variety of engineers and others.

The university charges a fee of $40,000 for a launch and participants must get the satellite to them two months before lift-off. Despite the modest scale, the undertakings aren't always a cinch. The spring launch, for instance, was supposed to take place at the end of this month, but has been postponed because the primary payload on the trip has been delayed.

Although U.S.-based launch companies have begun to express interest, the money is generally below their threshold. "But the Russians are very interested in small projects," Twiggs said.

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