Summary:

Southern Stars knew how to build a CubeSat. But getting it to space and communicating with it once it was there turned out to be more difficult than expected.

SkyCube CubeSat satellite
photo: Southern Stars

The team at Southern Stars, a small software company in San Francisco, had always been interested in space. They make stargazing apps after all.

“It’s been a spectator sport for us. We like to read about NASA landing Curiosity on Mars, but we never thought about it from a participatory angle,” founder Tim DeBenedictis said in an interview. “We’re all space nerds. It’s kind of been in our blood for a long time.”

Then, one day, DeBenedictis’ friend took him to see a shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was inspiring. Then DeBenedictis heard of CubeSats–tiny satellites that can collect data and send back photos from space–and realized Southern Stars could build one. They knew how to write software and how to build a microcontroller. They just needed the money to get it into space.

Crowdfunding a ticket to space

They launched a Kickstarter in 2012. For $1 to $10,000, backers could book time on the satellite to take photos and broadcast messages. The campaign raised just over $115,000.

DeBenedictis said reaching that number took serious work. He talked to people every day to spread awareness. The campaign’s big break came when Star Trek actor George Takei posted about it on Facebook.

“Kickstarter is not like this net that you just put it out there in the world and money magically falls into it,” DeBenedictis said. “It’s more like deep sea fishing: You have to do a lot of work to drive the fish into that net.”

A bit of hard-earned luck

DeBenedictis said raising the money was only half the battle. It turns out that communicating with a CubeSat once it is in space is very, very expensive and difficult. Southern Stars figured that NASA had some kind of system in place for small teams to talk to their satellites, but that isn’t at all the case. Everyone builds their own system to communicate.

Again, the SkyCube caught a break. Southern Stars had been communicating with a school that operated a small communications network. The two began working together to use the network to communicate with the SkyCube. On the other side of the world in Sydney, a ground station operated by Saber Astronautics will also track and converse with the satellite.

“You never know where things take you,” DeBenedictis said. “A stroke of bad luck can turn into a stroke of good luck sometimes.”

Tim DeBenedictis, Rouslan Dimitrov and Scott Cutler of Southern Stars holding the fully-integrated satellite for the first time. Photo courtesy of Southern Stars.

Tim DeBenedictis, Rouslan Dimitrov and Scott Cutler of Southern Stars holding the fully-integrated satellite for the first time. Photo courtesy of Southern Stars.

Actually getting the CubeSat into space also turned out to be a huge pain. At the time of the Kickstarter campaign, they had booked space on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket’s April 2013 trip to the International Space Station. But six months prior, an engine problem on a different Falcon 9 flight to the ISS caused the rocket to eject some of its cargo too early. The company that owned the prematurely ejected cargo had booked most of the space on the April 2013 flight and deferred launching again until SpaceX demonstrated an engine fix.

“Our launch was essentially canceled,” DeBenedictis said. “We are not the primary customer for this rocket; we’re sort of along for the ride for a $100,000 stowage cost. Even if paid for it, you have very little control. It’s driven by supply, not demand; that’s the nature of the business.”

SkyCube found itself scheduled for a November launch with a group of other CubeSats. That was then delayed to December. The SkyCube team was on its way to the launch when, during a layover in Chicago, an email announced that the launch again wasn’t happening, this time because of the coolant leak on the ISS. The crew didn’t have time to deal with a cargo shipment.

The SkyCube reaches the ISS

Finally, on January 9 of this year, the Antares rocket took flight with the SkyCube satellite on board. They were finally going to space.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata, floating beside the Nanoracks CubeSat deployer on the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of Nanoracks.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata, floating beside the Nanoracks CubeSat deployer on the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of Nanoracks.

“It was really really very cool. I’m surprised how emotional that moment was considering how much work went into it and how long we’d been waiting,” DeBenedictis said.

Now, the Southern Stars team is doing some more waiting as the day the SkyCube leaves the ISS inches closer. It’s expected that the crew will release it later this week. It is part of the largest group of satellites ever released.

SkyCube CubeSat satellite

“Am I nervous? A little bit. We tested the crap out of our satellite on the ground. I would not have released it for launch if it had not passed those tests,” DeBenedictis said. “We have every reason to believe that it will work. My guess is it will work but it will be flaky. I think the best we can do is relay our experiences as they come across.”

When it does hit space, it will begin broadcasting messages of all kinds. One woman booked time to transmit an obituary for her space-obsessed late husband. One Kickstarter backer will broadcast a haiku he wrote. The satellite will be visible to the naked eye on Earth, thanks to a seven-foot balloon attached to it that will inflate 90 days into its journey. It’s meant to give backers and other space observers a different kind of connection to the satellite; one that DeBenedictis said will greatly up the “wow” factor.

The balloon has another purpose: To prevent the SkyCube from becoming dangerous space debris, it will drag the satellite into the Earth’s atmosphere, causing it to burn up in a fiery grand finale.

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