Glasgow firm offers spaceships for "the price of a car"

Rob Waugh
Crowded skies (ESA)

Glasgow might sound like an unlikely “gateway to the  stars” - but a company in the city hopes to build and launch satellites as cheap as cars.

Until now, it’s cost “the price of a house” to put anything into orbit, the team say - but that is about to change, courtesy of 3D printers and converted nuclear missiles.

The company, PocketQubeShop, hope that this will be the start of a “DIY space age” - and  say that everyone from universities to Ham Radio fans are already crafting their own spaceships.

The catch? These are not NASA-sized behemoths - they’re 5cm wide, and made on 3D printers. The first four will launch in November, “hitching” on a Russian rocket.

Tom Walkinshaw, founder of PocketQube Shop said ‘We feel PocketQubes have huge potential to significantly lower the barriers to student and researchers getting access to space. We really need people to support this project if this potential is to be realised.’

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Walkinshaw said that the smallest current satellites - CubeSats - cost around the price of a house - whereas PocketQube will be the price of a car.

Walkinshaw says, “We believe small satellites are on the cusp of a major breakthrough much the like personal computers were in the late 70's/early 80's. We believe space should be open to all.”

Walkinshaw is currently seeking funding via KickStarter for a shop to provide easy access to the technology - proposed by Professor Bob Twigg, who also invented CubeSat.

The first PocketQubes show off that the fist-sized satellites will be capable machines - one has four pulsed plasma thrusters, a 3-axis reaction wheel and a colour camera.

Another, created by Professor Twigg himself, uses off-the-shelf electronics to transmit Morse Code - and in tribute to its low-budget approach is called 50-Dollar-Sat.

CubeSats already provide a way for enthusiasts to make their own “DIY” satellites - with CubeSats built to “open up” in space, and let out a fleet of smaller satellites.

“You can now launch spacecraft for tens of thousands of dollars instead of the billions of the Apollo mission,” says Michael Johnson, behind a similar project, Pocket Spacecraft.

“The cost of launching things into space fundamentally comes down to weight,” says Johnson. “The smaller you can make something, the less it costs to launch.”

Johnson’s Pocket Spacecraft project aimed to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts in 2015, but on a more modest budget - £200 ($300) per lander. Johnson failed to hit his funding goal - but PocketQube’s is a more modest $30,000.
PocketQube are in contact with a network of enthusiasts - and say that even Ham Radio fans are involved. The satellites can be used together to form networks in space - or to form sensors observing the earth. Like CubeSats, they will burn up on re-entry.

“PocketQube is is offering the first off the shelf components for the standard. These structures are the building blocks of any satellite and contain all the electronics,” the team say.

When the first four satellites launch, they will “ride” on a Russian Dnepr rocket - a converted nuclear missile. Once in space, a hatch will open, and the tiny satellites will float out to begin their missions.

A second payload of PocktQubes will head for orbit in February next year.

“We want to facilitate as many PocketQube builders as possible! We have contacts with all the PocketQube builders in the world and see huge potential in lowering the barriers to entry for budding 'Homebrew Satellite Builders'.”