Amateurs In Space
Embracing the age of DIY satellites and using technology to personally explore the stars.
On August 3, 2013, clouds of steam and smoke billowed out over the seaside launch pad of Japan’s Tanegashima space center. A 16-ton unmanned spacecraft lifted off and rocketed above the Pacific towards the International Space Station (ISS). Amongst its cargo of food, spare parts, and supplies for the ISS crew, the rocket carried two 4” cubes: satellites belonging to neither a government, research center, nor telecom company. Named the ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X, the crowd-funded satellites are now circling the earth at more than 17,000 miles an hour, running space experiments and operations created by hundreds of amateur researchers, artists, and explorers.
Just as smartphones transformed us all into a amateur photographers, cinematographers, and journalists, technology is realigning space research onto a populist trajectory. This is the age of the personal satellite.
Don’t think you’ll have any use for your own little computer in space? Think again. People said the same thing about The Internet and DIY genetics. The potential of personal space devices ranges wildly across science, communication, art, and activities that would be illegal here on earth. Not to mention the sheer thrill of feeling a more intimate connection with the cosmos.
Now, space-curious individuals can ride the wave of citizen science with endless possibility. Jumping at the opportunity to experiment, they might map the earth’s magnetic fields, personally monitor weather events, or document downward from above the atmosphere. A number of amateur researchers are interested in conducting space bioscience experiments like measuring the effects of gravity on cellular growth or the stability of various substances in space. Our human appetite for satisfied curiosity will find inexhaustible fuel beyond earth’s atmosphere.
In addition to the opportunities for learning and discovery, the communication capabilities of small space devices could have a significant social impact. Self-quants of the future can have their own satellites dedicated to taking photographs of their every location. Networks of these space devices can band together to relay their owners’ signals in a social/technological network: the Facebook of space. Political activists can use personal satellites for private communications and broadcasts outside the reach of government oversight. A dictatorial regime might be able to block twitter, but they can’t block ham radio signals. One company, Outernet, is even trying to use these small satellites to broadcast the internet directly to remote locations for free.
Creative potential is also fascinating to consider. Project Calliope plans to launch a small satellite and use its on-board ionospheric detector as a musical instrument, transmitting audio signals back to earth like an elaborate wind chime. One can easily imagine a whole genre of “space art,” created with specially constructed satellites that use the cosmos as a canvas for never-before-seen installations and happenings.
Like many emerging technologies, one of its largest potentials is in the realm of the illicit and illegal. Because space is neutral territory, it is outside of the laws of any one terrestrial country. When space-ready servers become more practical, online casinos, pirated content, and the black markets of the deep web will operate from the vast, frigid expanse outside of the earth’s atmosphere and control.
The realm of space is already within the reach of amateurs. NASA and a handful of commercial space companies already enable curious citizens to use their own technology to explore beyond the stars. In fact, Real Art is already working on outfitting our first TubeSat. So dream up a few plans for your own personal satellite. Blast-off is closer than you think.
Dreams of space got you hooked? Here’s more:
David Hoffman discusses the popular fascination with earth’s first satellite
Celebrating the Cosmos
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks on NPR about his new series on the solar system
When this mission started giving out one-way tickets to Mars, more than 200,000 people got in line.