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A nano-satellite that lets you take Earth images and "tweet" from space, then inflates a visible balloon, and de-orbits cleanly.
2,711 backers pledged $116,890 to help bring this project to life.

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R&R

Posted by Tim DeBenedictis (Creator)

Hello Team SkyCube!

We hit a major milestone this week. SkyCube has been delivered to Houston. it's now with Nanoracks, awaiting its final tests and NASA safety review. Meanwhile, we're taking a much-needed break. This update will show you more about our radio, and give you a chance to meet the team.

NASA has moved the SpaceX CRS-3 launch to November 28th, 2013. We've got plenty to keep busy with between now and then, so this little breather is coming at the right time.

Fremont Peak Radio Test

On April 18th, we performed a radio test of the nearly-complete SkyCube from the top of Fremont Peak, California, communicating directly with the main MC3 ground station 35 miles away at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Here's a YouTube video which shows you how the test looked:

As the video shows, it was a success! Although my cell phone had trouble getting a signal up there, the MC3 ground station in Monterey heard our satellite loud and clear. The satellite's internal received-signal-strength indicator showed that the MC3 radio coming from Monterey was also loud-and-clear. The occasional dropouts seen in the video above later turned out to be due to interference from the TV towers behind the Peak.

There are some differences between this test environment and true orbit-to-ground communication. The satellite is a lot closer to the ground station. But on the other hand, the MC3 antennas are pointing horizontally across the ground, through other sources of RF interference. After reviewing the data, the experts at NPS tell us that SkyCube will be able to communicate easily with their network from orbit.

Meet the Team

Now that you've seen our hardware, we'd like to tell you a little more about the people who designed it, put it together, and made it work.

Kevin Brown (right) is the mastermind behind Astronautical Development, LLC.  We found Kevin through prof. Bob Twiggs, who pioneered the CubeSat standard at Stanford University more than 10 years ago; AstroDev is now closely associated with the  Kentucky Space program at Morehead, KY, where Prof. Twiggs now resides.  Kevin's radios have flown on more CubeSats than any other small satellite vendor.  Boeing chose Kevin's design for the Colony-2 CubeSat bus, and the radio which SkyCube is using with the US Navy's MC3 Network.  JPL chose AstroDev's radios for its upcoming INSPIRE mission, which will be the first launch of CubeSats into interplanetary space.

Kevin also designed SkyCube's aluminum structure, computer board, electrical power system, and other electronics.  Kevin isn't just an RF expert - he's a really nice guy with great midwestern charm (Kevin grew up in Kansas!) to boot.  And he stands by his work.  Last November, when we needed assistance, Kevin flew out from Kentucky on his own dime to make things work.  I can say from personal experience that Kevin won't quit until he gets it right.

Rouslan Dimitrov (below, middle) is a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, and now holds permanent residency in the USA.  Rouslan is a full-time GPU architect and project manager at NVidia Corporation in Santa Clara.  He oversees the development of the next generation of bleeding-edge graphics hardware - and he personally designed and built SkyCube's solar panels.  He's a top-notch electrical engineer. He not only personally soldered more than 1200 Spectrolab triangles into place on SkyCube's panels, but also performed full system assembly and debugging.  Rouslan is also one of the most cheerful people we know - definitely not the stereotype of eastern europeans that you see on TV!  He also builds audio hardware, and plays the guitar like a madman.  He is a silicon valley rennaissance man.  Few can resist his charms.

Scott Cutler (above, right) grew up closer to home, near California's capital of Sacramento.  Scott was employee #358 at NVIDIA, and is now a world-leading expert in graphics architecture and optimization.  It's less well-known, however, that Scott is also a world-leading expert in nearly everything else.  He wrote a program that uses a $25 USB gizmo for watching TV on your PC to decode FM radio, pager messages, and even satellite transmissions from orbit.  Scott's work - featured in our video above, showing Kevin's radio working on top Fremont Peak - will become an important part of SkyCube's "tweets from space" component later this year.  Scott is also an excellent machinist who solved many mechanical problems in the final stages of SkyCube's development and integration - and created a system for producing perfectly spherical ice balls using only gravity.  Scott's garage puts the Bat Cave to shame.  In many ways, the even-tempered, mild-mannered Dr. Cutler was the glue who held our team together.  After seeing him in action, I'm convinced that there is no problem Scott can't solve.

The Road Ahead

We've taken a breather this week, but there's still much left to do.  We'll be sharing more about Scott's amateur radio solution soon.  We'll be updating our Satellite Safari apps for iOS and Android to enable your messages and images from orbit when SkyCube launches.  And, of course, we'll perform any modifications to the SkyCube satellite that NASA and/or Nanoracks request.

So there's still a long road ahead, but we've come a long, long way.  I hope you've enjoyed the  journey as much as we have.

Best to all.

-Tim, Kevin, Scott, Rouslan, Mark, Chris, and the rest of Team SkyCube

Moving Parts

Posted by Tim DeBenedictis (Creator)

A lot has happened since our last update. We're now very close to delivering SkyCube for launch. As we've built the satellite, we recorded some videos which show how the solar panel and lid deployment systems work. These are the satellite's only moving parts - but they have to function correctly, or we don't have a mission. So we've been working hard to get them right. Here are our answers to this challenge.

What Goes Up ...

After SkyCube deploys from the ISS, it must first deploy its solar panels. If that fails, the cameras can't see, and the radio can't hear. So the solar panel release mechanism must be foolproof. It took a few tries, but we found one that works every time. Here's a YouTube video which shows it in action:

This video above was actually the first test of the final system. The emotions are real! Here's how it works:

  • Two loops of nylon thread wrap all the way around the satellite, top to bottom, and tie the solar panels securely in place. They are spring loaded. The nylon ties them down, preventing them from springing open.
  • Deployment from ISS releases the foot-switch, turning the satellite on. (Scott simulates this in the video by peeling tape off the switch to release it.)
  • The nylon thread passes through a tiny loop of NiChrome wire at the bottom of each panel. (NiChrome is the same kind of wire in a hair drier or soldering iron that gets red-hot when you send electricity through it.)
  • The satellite sends a burst of current through the NiChrome, melting the nylon, and releasing the panels. Fifteen seconds later, it does the same thing for the other two panels.

... Must Come Down

Ninety days after deployment, a second set of moving parts must work correctly in order to end the mission.

These moving parts release the solar panel lid on top of the satellite, inflate the balloon inside, and briefly turn SkyCube into a visible star crossing the night sky, before dragging it down from orbit and preventing any contribution to space debris.

Here's a second YouTube video showing how it works:

The lid solar panel release shown in the video above works the same way as the other panels. The lid is spring loaded, and wants to fly open. But it's restrained by nylon line, passed through a tiny loop of NiChrome wire. The satellite energizes the NiChrome, burns through the nylon, and the lid springs open.

The balloon inflator also uses this system. But in this case, the nylon thread releases a much heftier spring, attached to a gas cracker, which pierces the CO2 cartridge inside. We've shown you this video before, back in November, but here it is again.  Mark demos the balloon inflator during the last 30 seconds of the video.

And if you're wondering just how big that balloon gets in the vaccuum of space, Mark built us a copy which we inflated with air in Scott's garage:

We'd like to offer a special thank you to Mark Caviezel and Global Western, who developed the lid release and balloon inflation system for us. It inspired our own solar panel release mechanism. Mark has made every delivery deadline we've thrown at him - in good times and in bad. And he's just a really good guy to work with.

Mark - we're lucky to have found you, and we wish you and Global Western the best in your endeavours!

Milestones

We passed two other milestones last week:

  • SkyCube passed its vibration test at Quanta Labs in Sunnyvale, CA. We discovered a few loose screws (aghem!) but none of our showstopper scenarios came to pass. The solar cells did not chip or break. The nylon tie-lines held fast. The balloon did not accidentally inflate. Read the full report here.
  • FCC issued SkyCube's experimental license to broadcast from orbit. (Finally!) For the amateur radio operators on this project, SkyCube now has a call sign. We are WG9XMF. Listen for us in October! You can view the complete license grant here.

Satellite Safari - Now Here for Android!

As promised, our Satellite Safari app is now available for Android on Google Play. This is the mobile app that will let you track the SkyCube mission, and - later in 2013 - request pictures and send tweets from orbit. Without further ado:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.southernstars.satellite_safari

The new Android version of Satellite Safari (1.1) has quite a few features that were not in the iOS version 1.0.  We added these as a result of initial user feedback to the iPhone version.  These include:

  • almost 10x as many satellites, and over 1100 satellite descriptions from NSSDC.
  • ability to display or hide groups of satellites, like all the CubeSats, or all GEO CommSats.
  • ability to set location manually, in addition to using phone GPS.
  • magnitude limit slider for Sky view.
  • list of "tonight's best" satellites, arranged by time.

We expect to update the iOS version of Satellite Safari to 1.1 this week, to give it feature-parity with the Android version.  But right now, the Android version is definitely ahead in terms of features.

Not There Yet!

Although an incredible number of things have been accomplished since our last update, we're not quite at the finish line yet.  I would like to give thanks for the incredible efforts of everyone on the team who've gotten us this far, and to our Kickstarter supporters who made it all possible in the first place.

You are the reason we're doing this.  Best wishes to all.

-Tim, Mark, Chris, Kevin, Scott, Rouslan, and The Gang

Introducing Satellite Safari

Posted by Tim DeBenedictis (Creator)

Over the weekend, Apple approved Satellite Safari.  This is the app that will let you request images and send broadcasts from orbit when the SkyCube satellite launches later this year. But for now, it's (we think) a top-notch satellite tracking-and-observation app.

We do have an Android version in the works, and expect to release it in April. The iOS version is out now; here's a direct link to the new app on the iTunes Store:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/satellite-safari/id616134944?mt=8

The regular price is $4.99, but we're leaving it at $2.99 (40% off) until April.  For those of you without smartphones, we are also building a free web interface to SkyCube.  But the iPhone and (soon) Android apps will give you a much better/more flexible interface.

More information, screen shots, and a 5-minute video tour are available on our web site. If you can't wait to get started, search for "Satellite Safari" on the iTunes Store, and look for the icon below.  Or just use the direct iTunes Store link above.

'appy Tuesday and best wishes!

-Tim, Chris, Kevin, Scott, Bill, Rouslan, Mark, Joe, and the rest of Team SkyCube.

Expect the Unexpected

Posted by Tim DeBenedictis (Creator)

Last month's update, regarding the 2012 DA14 asteroid flyby, ended with the phrase "keep looking up!  You never know what sneak by." When I wrote those words, I certainly did not expect a 7,000-ton meteor to explode over central Russia the next morning!

It just goes to show that things sometimes don't work out as you initially planned or expected.  On that note, we have some big news regarding SkyCube's launch.

We're Going to the Space Station

This morning, a SpaceX falcon 9 rocket roared into the sky above Florida, carrying a Dragon capsule packed with cargo bound for the International Space Station.  Here's how it looked:

Click here for a YouTube video of the SpaceX CRS-2 launch, 1 March 2013.

Originally, we expected SkyCube to launch on a similar SpaceX Falcon 9 in April 2013.  However - for reasons having nothing to do with SkyCube – our satellite has been manifested on a different Falcon 9 going to the International Space Station in September, 2013.

SkyCube will still be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, but in September, 2013.  It will be unpacked from the Dragon capsule by astronauts aboard ISS, and deployed into its own orbit 2 weeks later.

What You Can Expect

SkyCube will not be the first CubeSat deployed from the ISS.  NASA's TechEdSat, and Japan's FITSAT-1, were among the first, in October, 2012.  Here's how that deployment looked:

These surreal (but real!) NASA photos show the first CubeSat deployment from the ISS.  They were taken by astronaut Chris Hadfield on 4 October 2012.

Rolling with the Changes

We'd like to introduce NanoRacks, who is managing the deployment of SkyCube from the ISS via their Space Act Agreement with NASA's U.S. National Lab.

We've been working with Spaceflight Services and NanoRacks to modify SkyCube to meet additional safety standards for human spaceflight required by NASA.  Changes include adding two more deployment foot switches to the top and bottom of the satellite, and a redundant release mechanism for the solar panels.

Here are some pictures that illustrate those modifications.

The image above shows how the solar panels unfold after the satellite is deployed and activated.  Solar panels will be restrained before deployment by cuttable nylon bolts at both top and bottom. We added the top restraint to satisfy a new requirement for redundant deployment mechanisms.

The image above shows a closeup of SkyCube's interior, exposed with the solar panels fully deployed below the satellite. Note the space-qualified MoliCell ICR18650J batteries (in purple) near the bottom, provided for us by ABSL Space Products of Longmont, Colorado. We'll remove the paper camera connector labels (A, B, C, etc.) before launch!

The bottom foot switch shown above was part of our original design. We've added a second bottom foot switch on the diagonally opposite corner.

We added a third foot switch at the top of the satellite's balloon compartment. A hole, and an extension rod, thru the end of the foot pad still need to be drilled, but you can see where these go. This third foot switch was the trickiest addition.

Finally, here's what the whole satellite looks like when fully deployed into its on-orbit configuration:

A few more technical details need to be worked out, but we're confident that we can resolve them in the six months between now and September.  Getting SkyCube into orbit will take longer than we originally expected.  But the new plan, to deploy SkyCube from ISS, adds a whole new dimension to the project.  You might just end up with a few pictures pictures like this one:

That's the International Space Station, seen by Japan's FITSAT-1 CubeSat as it deployed in 2012.  Originally, our FAQ mentioned that you would not be able to capture images of the space station with SkyCube.  That may have changed, now.  We've learned to expect the unexpected!

Paperwork Progress

On February 1st, 2013 NOAA approved SkyCube's earth-sensing license.  A public summary is available here (scroll to "NOAA Licensees" at bottom of the page).

FCC approved SkyCube's ODAR on January 11th, and based on recent communication with FCC and IARU, we believe our experimental license approval is imminent.  The pieces are coming together!

We'd like to thank New Resource Bank for their recent sponsorship of the SkyCube project.  NRB operations manager Jared Barnes wrote, "Everyone truly enjoys your project and while we typically do not sponsor for profit companies, we would like to help you on this endeavor."

Finally, we'd like to congratulate SpaceX on a successful launch to ISS this morning.  And I can't tell you how pleased we are to be part of the next SpaceX launch to ISS in September.  We're extremely grateful to Spaceflight Services and NanoRacks for making it possible, and we look forward to sharing the adventure with you.

Best wishes to all of our supporters, and questions welcome.

-Tim, Chris, Kevin, Scott, Rouslan, Mark, Joe, Bill, and the rest of Team SkyCube

Beware of Falling Asteroids

Posted by Tim DeBenedictis (Creator)

Good Afternoon, SkyCube Supporters!

We're going to start this update with a diversion that is not, strictly-speaking, SkyCube related.

Tomorrow, February 15th, planet Earth gets a close shave from a nearby asteroid, 2012 DA14. This 180,000-ton space rock comes within a few thousand miles of the Earth's surface - closer than our geosynchronous communication satellites, and a record close approach for an asteroid of this size.  Amateur astronomers with large backyard telescopes and clear, dark skies should be able to catch a glimpse!

While this asteroid is going to (barely) miss us, others may not.  It seems worthwhile to survey the skies to find out just how severe the asteroid threat really is - this one could have vaporized a city the size of New York if it arrived just 15 minutes later.  And to figure out what how we'd move an asteroid off a collision course if one were found.  A whole other reason to move asteroids, of course, is to mine them.  It's an idea so crazy that Google is putting its money behind it.

There's something else unique about this particular asteroid flyby: it's the first one that you can follow on your smartphone! We've updated our SkySafari Plus and Pro apps for iOS, Mac, and Android to predict the motions of asteroids and comets using the same highly-accurate solar system physics as NASA and JPL. As a result, unlike virtually every other planetarium program, SkySafari Plus and Pro can pinpoint 2012 DA14 accurately in the sky. As far as we know, ours are the only mobile apps - and maybe the only desktop apps - that can do this!

Here's a 6-minute YouTube video which shows the new SkySafari Pro update in action:

(Here's a link to the YouTube video, in case the image above won't click through to it.)

We're almost done with the shameless plug, now, but we might as well mention that this new update is free for current SkySafari Plus and Pro owners! If don't yet have a copy, now is the time to upgrade - we've put it on sale through Sunday.

To download SkySafari Plus for iOS, Mac, or Android, use the following links:

To download SkySafari Pro for iOS, Mac, or Android, use the following links:

Please note: the basic version of SkySafari does not support the new asteroid/comet orbit integrator. This new feature is exclusive to SkySafari Plus and Pro.

Announcing Satellite Safari

So let's reel all of this back into the SkyCube project.  We (Southern Stars) are first-and-foremost a mobile app developer.  Most of our work on SkyCube in 2012 concentrated on building the satellite itself. That work is nearly complete, and we're turning attention to the mobile app side of the project.

As we developed an app for the SkyCube mission, we realized it would be useful for more than just our one satellite. And we also realized that there are a lot of you out there who really enjoy observing and learning about our "birds" in orbit. So the SkyCube app has evolved beyond its original mission, and become a satellite-watcher's dream. And it now has a name: Satellite Safari.

Here are some screen shots:

We're putting the finishing touches on Satellite Safari right now, and expect to release version 1.0 well before April, 2013.  And speaking of April, 2013 - we'll have an update regarding our launch schedule very soon.  (Hang on - the ink isn't quite dry yet, and we don't want to jinx it.  Stay tuned.)

Media Potpourri

A few articles mentioning SkyCube to one degree or another have recently come across our desk:

  • Adam Wuerl, of our very own launch provider, Spaceflight Services, has written a very good analysis of major trends in the space industry over the past 20 years.  Read his blog post here.
  • Filmmaker David Gaynes has produced a documentary movie about a different kind of grassroots space effort: the campaign to save the Hubble Space Telescope in the early 2000s.  I've seen his movie, and it's surprisingly moving.  David supported SkyCube, and we're giving him a shout in return.

We hope you've enjoyed this update.  It's a little off the beaten path - but then again, battleship-sized asteroids don't come whizzing by us every day.  We'll offer some real meat-and-potatoes details on the SkyCube mission progress very soon.

In the meantime, keep looking up!  You never know what might try to sneak by.  Best regards,

-Tim, Kevin, Chris, Scott, Rouslan, Mark, Joe, and the rest of Team SkyCube