Wednesday 12 August 2015

Getting Started with a Space Project

This is a blog post I wrote for the STEMN website

How The OzQube-1 Project Began


When you see all the awesome projects on the Internet, social media or even the news, you get caught up in the amazement and wonder of what the project is or has achieved. People sometimes forget that they all had to start somewhere. They were all just an idea in someone's mind, and at some point, that idea needed to emerge into the physical world. I wanted to share the background of my project with the STEMN community, and to give readers some tips on getting started.
In case you're not familiar with my project, it's called "OzQube-1" . It's a tiny PocketQubesatellite that I'm building it in my back shed. Although to be fair, just the development and assembly of the prototype has been in the back shed! Its mission is to capture images of Australia from space, and transmit those images back down to earth to anyone that wants to listen. It's made news on ABC Radio here in Australia, one of the leading Science news websites Phys.Org , and even a prime time Current Affairs TV show - Today Tonight .
But how did I get started? Why did I decide to do this particular project? Lets go back a few years.....
If you're reading this, then I'm probably safe to assume that you've heard of the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as "Curiosity." It was the first space mission that I'd really taken an interest in. I couldn't tell you exactly when I got that space bug, but the it was somewhere between the launch and when it landed on Mars, a little over 3 years ago in August 2012. By the time Curiosity had landed, I was well and truly on my way to being a space nerd. I had become so excited about things that I even got my colleagues at work to watch the live stream for the landing! Following that event, one of my colleagues would regularly ask me "How's your mate on Mars?", at which point I'd update him on the latest images or discoveries. 
Not content with one space mission, I subscribed to a popular internet forum that deals with all things space, to get my fix of information for missions both old and new. The Internet has made information on all types of space missions much more accessible, yet many of the hands-on details and know-how surrounding these missions still remained  locked up by government agencies, under the belief that the transfer of knowledge relating to satellite systems needed to be regulated just like the trafficking of arms. One area, however, contained an abundance of reference material - Cubesats. By 2013, the Cubesats had been in orbit for more than 10 years. Various Universities (Colleges), companies and government organisations had launched a number of satellites based on the Cubesat form factor, specifically for research and scientific benefits. This has resulted in a large number of papers and theses being written, detailing the cubesat subsystems, operational performance and mission details. This was a goldmine for a space information junkie like myself! But at this point, I was not considering starting a project of my own.
In late July 2013, a company called Planetary Resources started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a space telescope that would be publicly accessible, and have a second camera and a screen onboard. The screen would be used to display a selfie that people uploaded via the web, and the second camera would capture an image of  the earth with their image in the foreground. Here was a company that really wanted people to get involved in space exploration, so I became a supporter of the campaign, and began to follow their progress.
Not long after the Planetary Resources Kickstarter, another space related campaign started. This one had an interesting title - "Want to build a satellite but dont have a NASA sized budget?". The campaign was part of the launch of a new online store that supplied structures for a new type of satellite called a "PocketQube". This was the first time I had heard of a PocketQube. Even though these satellites were designed to be more affordable that Cubesats, the structures on offer as part of the campaign were still something that you'd only consider if you were serious about building a satellite. They're not something that you'd buy just for interests sake (they were about $500AUD). But the potential for the electronics inside it was something that appealed to me. Not only had I been getting obsessed with space, I'd started to listen to a podcast called "The Amp Hour" during my daily commute, and was keen to learn about how to use electronics design tools to make custom circuit boards. Still, a satellite seemed a bit too complex. I had recently made my first RC quad-copter, and was thinking about giving the controller an upgrade with GPS etc, ready to turn it into a proper drone.
Very soon after the PocketQube Shop campaign, the first 4 PocketQube satellites werelaunched into orbit. One of the PocketQubes was called $50Sat. It was designed and built with the name in mind, although I found out subsequently that the cost to make it was more like $250. It used commodity components and it took advantage of low cost electronic prototyping. The creators of the satellite had made a lot of the details of their project available on the internet, so I learnt that it was fairly easy to listen to the telemetry being transmitted. I ended up buying the required equipment, which was one of those USB TV tuner dongles, along with a modest antenna and a cable or 2. I was then able to receive the telemetry from this satellite while sitting in my lounge room (My wife thinks I look quite amusing waving an antenna around in the air, waiting to hear the alien sounding transmissions.) But still, I wasn't thinking about making my own satellite
I kept in touch with the person behind the PocketQube Shop - Tom Walkinshaw. We traded emails and discussed things like the need for a standardized circuit board and backplane connector to make up the stack inside the PocketQubes. He put me in touch with a group of enthusiasts around the world, and together we managed to arrive at some kind of consensus - the PQ60 standard. Throughout this process, I really wanted to keep the hobbyist - i.e. myself - in mind so that the specifications wouldn't  exceed the skill level or affordability that comes with doing things at the hobbyist level. I had started to use some EDA tools (like Eagle) to make sure I could route the traces on the circuit board to and from the main connector. 
It was around this time that I had come to the realization that I believed that I could build myself a satellite. All I needed to do was work out exactly what to put in it, how to get it all working together, then actually build it..... Sounds simple!

How to get started

So we're finally at the point where I stopped just thinking about making a satellite. It was time to start creating something. It was time to start the project. Little did I realise that I had already started. Here are my steps or tips to starting a space project.

The first step to getting started is passion. Passion is the thing that inspired you in the first place, and it is the thing that keeps you going. It drives you to learn about things that you haven't done before, and to pick up the pieces when you make mistakes. There are often other motivations for doing a space project, but to stick with it and see it through, you have to be passionate.

What happens next? I know this is going to sound pretty out there, but the next step is to actually start.... It's time to take all those thoughts that have been swirling round your head and get them out into some kind of coordinated order. You've heard of "back of the envelope" calculations? Well, put them onto a proper piece of paper! (or spreadsheet.....unless you're old school!) Create yourself a high level concept and work out the key components. See if you can create a single page summary of the project. You don't need to know all the details yet, you just need to understand what the aim of the project is and what is it going to do. 
From this point, you should be able to break down the project into smaller chunks. Think of  your main project as a collection of smaller projects, each one with a specific purpose. This is where you start looking at the resources that you have, have access to, or need to obtain. What parts are you able to complete yourself? Who are your team members? What skills can they contribute? It's around this point where you do the old feasibility analysis. Based on all the information you've gathered and the breakdown you've worked out, is the project achievable? Do you need to just focus on some of the smaller projects? Sometimes, the smaller projects are just as important in their own right. It would be better to complete a smaller project than have an unfinished bigger one.
Once you've got your long list of smaller projects, it's time to start getting into the nitty gritty and start the technical side of things. You know - hard facts and numbers, creating technical designs and making actual hardware. That sort of thing. Its up to you how this part is managed. Big projects may need proper Project Management. Small ones may just be worked on in your spare time. That's up to you, and that's well past the scope of this blog post!


If the above was a little long-winded, here's a short summary for you to end on.
  • You've got to want to do something (you wouldn't be reading this if you didnt!) 
  • Be passionate about the project. Know what you want to achieve.
  • Get the high level plans onto paper, or computer. Summarize the project.
  • Break it down into smaller, manageable chunks.
  • Start something amazing!
  • I hope that this post helps at least one of you out there. It may not work for all of you, but it is how I see things through what I've experienced creating my own space project. Please leave me feedback in the comments, and follow my project here on STEMN, or on Twitter andFacebook . If you want to help get my project into space, please consider donating via myGoFundMe campaign