FossaSat-1, an Open Source Satellite for the Internet of Things

The very first satellite built entirely with open hardware was only put into orbit in May last year. It was the UPSat cubesat, and was constructed by the Libre Space Foundation, who tried to keep the amount of off the shelf parts to the absolute minimum, with all of the critical subsystems of the satellite being designed from scratch using open software and open hardware.

However, despite significantly lowering the barrier to entry to putting your own satellite into space, even if you build your satellite using the 10 × 10 × 10 cm CubeSat standard you’re probably looking at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars to launch once construction and launcher costs are taken fully into account. But what if you managed to fit everything you needed into an even smaller space?

Built by Julian Fernandez, Richard Bamford, and Chris Mulhall, the FossaSat-1 satellite takes advantage of both the plummeting cost and integration of off the shelf chips and radios that is the “peace dividend” of the smartphone war.

Smaller even than the now ubiquitous CubeSat standard, FossaSat-1 is what is known as a PocketQube — measuring just 5 × 5 × 5cm and weighing in at only 250g, it will be one of the smallest satellites ever launched into space.

In case you’re confused, the tape measures attached to the satellite in the picture aren’t there for scale, instead they’re UHF antennas. Using metal tape measures to build simple quarter-wave monopole antennas is a hack to that’s actually pretty common in the small satellite community, despite the relatively poor RF performance, it’s good enough. The tape measures are normally wrapped around the satellite for launch and deployed on orbit.

Working in the UHF Amateur Satellite band (435–438 MHz), the FossaSat-1 satellite will broadcast LoRa and RTTY signals which should be receivable on the ground by anyone using a cheap LoRa radio module connected to a basic wire mono-pole antenna.

While this won’t be the first time LoRa signals have been received from space, it is the first time—at least as far as I know—that a dedicated LoRa satellite is going to be deployed into orbit.

The main payload of the satellite is built around an Arduino-compatible 8-bit ATmega328P-AU microcontroller. It uses a Semtech SX1278 LoRa transceiver as its main means of telecommunications, and the power system is based on three STMicroelectronics SPV1040 MPPT chips.

The software for FossaSat-1 is available from the project’s GitHub repo along with hardware designs for both the structure and payload of the satellite.

FossaSat-1 is scheduled to launch in the third quarter of next year as part of the Alba Orbital launch cluster 2 which consists of 7 PocketQube satellites that will be launched into a 375 km orbit. Although the launch vehicle for Alba Orbital’s cluster 2 isn’t yet specified, it’s possible it might be the Vector Space Systems Vector-R. This is the launch vehicle for Alba’s first cluster, which is due to fly on Vector’s first commercial and orbital flight of the Vector-R rocket. Originally scheduled for July this year, the first orbital flight of the Vector-R now won’t happen till 2019.

If you’re thinking about putting together your own satellite, a PocketQube kit can be bought off the shelf for just over $10,000, with a slot in an upcoming Alba Orbital launch cluster starting at €25,000 (around $28,500).

While still not a trivial amount of money, that puts the cost of launching a PocketQube well below the cost of launching a full CubeSat into orbit. That means the cost of putting your own satellite into space is now more in the region of the cost a high end car, rather than the cost of a house.

Scientist, Author, Hacker, Maker, and Journalist.