When the Soviet satellite Sputnik One first orbited Earth in 1957, its radio pulses terrified America, sowing the seeds for GPS technology and kick-starting the multi-billion “space race” between the USSR and America - which culminated in the manned Apollo moon landings just over a decade later.
Glaswegian entrepreneur Tom Walkinshaw, 24, is to open a shop next week that he hopes will start a new, “DIY space race”, where anyone can buy their own Sputnik - with satellites on sale for as little as £12,000, which rises to £20,000 when you include the cost of launch into orbit.
The satellites aren’t, of course, NASA material - around 5cm across, PocketQubes ‘hitch’ lifts into space on bigger rockets, then spill out to fulfill missions as varied as transmitting radio channels to tracking birds.
Walkinshaw says he hopes PocketQubeShop will “lower the barrier” between ordinary people and space - so that school pupils and enthusiasts can explore space, without having to spend “the price of a house.”
Walkinshaw envisions a future where students simply buy a "kit", assemble a satellite, then aim for the stars.
“We never used to have PC's in every University/School, but now a classroom without them is unthinkable,” Walkinshaw told Yahoo News this week.
Since successfully raising money via KickStarter last year, eight projects are now aiming for space using PocketQubeShop’s technology - and Walkinshaw hopes for “30 to 40 more” within a year.
“Just last month the first high school got their satellite into orbit - Imagine the economic and technological multiplier effect if every University and High School followed in their footsteps. You could do it for less than the cost of a teacher/lecturer for a year.”
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Sputnik and the satelllites which followed it paved the way for the moon landings - but also helped scientists understand our upper atmosphere, as well as paving the way for our current GPS systems.
“I was inspired by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal,” Walkinshaw told Yahoo News, “What he has achieved with Space X is incredible.”
Over the past five years, Musk’s Space X program launched the first private rocket to reach orbit, the first to dock with the Space Station - and the entrepreneur ultimately aims to colonise other planets.
“Launch prices start around $20k,” says Walkinshaw. “For the actual satellite, you can do it very cheaply, but a sensible budget is around $15k.”
“I think the next PocketQube launch will happen by the end of this year,” he says, “Although it depends on other people’s schedules.”
Like their predecessor, the larger Cubesat, PocketQubes have to ‘hitch’ a ride on larger launches, travelling in the cargo bay. This means dates can be somewhat unpredictable.
“The first few aim to do science experiments, and technology demos - but one team are working on tracking migrating birds which has a real impact back here on the ground,” Walkinshaw says.
“One of our first satellites only toook two months to build,” says Walkinshaw, “But realistically you are looking at 1 year to 18 months. We are currently finalising power systems, communication and altitude control components/hardware.Over time we want to have a full rig on sale - maybe even a kit you just build yourself.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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, beaming radio signals to Earth - or to form sensors observing the earth. Like CubeSats, they will burn up on re-entry.