I was awake at stupid o’clock last Sunday morning to watch NASA’s livestream of the launch of the HTV-4 resupply vehicle. At precisely 05:48:46AM AEST, JAXA H-IIB F4 launch vehicle lifted off smoothly en route to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The 5.4 tonne payload comprised all the usual suspects: water, replacement and upgraded electronics for various ISS systems, spares for major station components, and new equipment and supplies for experiments.
Nestled in amongst the other cargo were four tiny ‘CubeSats’, two of which were funded by a Kickstarter project: ArduSat. These tiny satellites are the first example of crowdfunded space operations, and represent an exciting new development in the recent popularisation of ‘citizen science’.
Commercial satellite launches are immensely expensive, costing hundreds of millions of dollars using current rocket-based technology. The idea behind the ArduSat project is to provide low-cost access to real, orbiting satellites to students and space enthusiasts. By designing payloads small enough to fit into gaps in the main cargo area, innovative satellite operators are able to hitch a ride on commercial space launches at a fraction of the cost. The dramatic cost reduction has finally made it viable to create an orbiting educational platform, a remarkable achievement.