Using GNU Radio with a custom receiving antenna may take longer to implement, but the end result can be closely tailored to the project’s needs while minimizing costs. Cheap hardware combined with free software ensures that the final cost of a ground station will be well below the high-end estimate of $1100. But can this low-cost approach achieve the fidelity and performance required to filter hundreds of Sprite signals sent from space, each powered solely by solar panels no wider than a fingernail?
DIY ground stations for receiving satellite signals can be as cheap as $20-$30 or as expensive as $1500, and in this case more expensive is not necessarily better. Sprites are small, powered only by a solar panel, and many of them will be sending signals from orbit at once. Making sure that all of them can communicate with the ground successfully requires carefully selected software and equipment, along with some smart radio tricks.
Launch details have begun to arrive. According to Zac, KickSat’s launch vehicle has been named, bringing the project that much closer to a specific launch date. Now that KickSat has been slated for takeoff, the project’s timetable can focus around a specific launch window. And it turns out that the rocket that KickSat will be taking to space is quite an interesting one.
Time for another project update! Over the past few months, the KickSat team worked on finalizing the development kits for the Sprite Spacecraft. These kits were originally scheduled to reach backers like me in May. While the delivery date has slipped a little, enough work has been completed to give those programming their Sprite a place to start. The KickSat team released working drafts of much of the development kit material, stretching over the categories of hardware, software, and support.
The KickSat has a ride to space! Over the weekend the Kickstarter team announced that it has secured a launch slot through the ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program. ELaNa is a NASA initiative to send CubeSats from research universities into space. The main benefit of an ELaNa launch is that it’s free; had KickSat not been accepted into the program, the team would have needed to look into costly commercial launches.
The KickSat will be launched into a roughly circular orbit at an altitude of approximately 325 km. The orbit will have an inclination of about 51°. Satellite orbits lie in a plane; the inclination corresponds to the angle between this plane and the plane that passes through the Earth’s equator. An angle of at least 50° is required in order to ensure radio visibility to the majority of the populated globe (i.e. ±50 degrees latitude from the equator).
At the time of the announcement, KickSat was number 23 in line for launch. In other words, it’s only a matter of time before the Sprites are orbiting overhead. ELaNa launches do not follow a set schedule; often, the university satellites are placed aboard NASA rockets that happen to have a small amount of extra room. So it’s too early for a set launch date. However, it can be said with a high amount of confidence that the Sprites will be in space in the first half of 2013.