Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Spacecraft on a disk and in your pocket.

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Michael Johnson from Pocket Spacecraft who is here to talk to us about their Kickstarter project.  Thank you for joining us Michael.

Thanks for the opportunity!

As long term readers know I’m a big proponent of space exploration and innovation so when your Pocket Spacecraft project appeared I was intrigued.  Would you care to explain your project for us?  

Space is big - really big. Mankind has only sent a few dozen successful robotic exploration missions into the solar system since the start of the space age, yet there are millions of places waiting to be explored including asteroids, moons, planets, ring systems and more.

Although space agencies do an amazing job launching high end exploration systems to interesting places, there are many more missions proposed than can ever be funded as high end missions are typically one offs that cost many many millions or even billions.

The goal of this Kickstarter is to provide another option, an option that anyone can afford to participate in. We want to give anyone the opportunity to design, launch and operate their own interplanetary spacecraft for fun and science. For this proof of concept mission we want to demonstrate this by sending a few thousand very small (<1g) spacecraft backed by private individuals to the moon. Full details on the Kickstarter page here:

Now cubesats are well established at this point so the innovations you’re planning on showing off with this project are both interplanetary cubesats as well as these extremely tiny Pocket Spacecraft?  What makes these so new and different?  

More than 70 CubeSats have been launched in the decade since Professors Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari first defined the CubeSat standard. However all these CubeSats have been launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – typically less than a thousand miles above the surface of the earth and they typically cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each – too expensive for most individuals.

Our interest is interplanetary exploration, going to places such as the moon and other planets at a price low enough that private individuals can afford to have their own interplanetary spacecraft.

This is technically and economically challenging so we use an Interplanetary CubeSat Mothership to gain access to standardised inexpensive launch, and then split this single larger cost thousands of ways by packing it with thousands of Thin-Film Spacecraft/Lander/Rover ‘Scouts’ which can be backed by individuals at a much lower cost yet still perform the science mission.

By combining these techniques we can get the price per Scout down to a few hundred dollars instead of the hundreds of millions or billions than interplanetary missions typically cost. What’s more, because we are using hybrid printed electronics to implement these devices, they can be mass customised, so backers can customise the appearance of their spacecraft, the software that they run and even customise the hardware design of their spacecraft all just using a web browser.

Basically what you’re saying is each of these little spacecraft are ultra thin tiny frisbees?  Their only form of propulsion is the fact that they’re so light they are “blown” by the solar wind?  

Not quite. The little Thin-Film Spacecraft/Lander/Rover ‘Scouts’ are fully functional spacecraft with a flight computer, instruments and communications systems on board. In fact, thanks to Moore’s Law, their system-on-a-chip that is about 2 mm2 and has a mass of just a few milligrams is about as powerful as the flight computer on the Voyager spacecraft.  

They can take measurements, make calculations, transmit their results and are propelled through space thanks to the force of light from the sun. If they are deployed in orbit around the Earth or other planets with a suitable atmosphere, they are light enough that they will flutter all the way from orbit to the ground like a leaf falling from a tree, acting as a lander. Once they land, they are light enough that some will be blown around by the wind providing limited roving functionality.

So the idea is that a single generic and customisable device can act as a spacecraft and a lander and a rover, at a price low enough that eventually they can be deployed by the thousand or even the million throughout the solar system.

As you can imagine, the force of the light from the sun isn’t very great so it takes awhile to get around using solar sailing, so although with the right launch we could in theory design the Scouts to make their own way to the moon from launch, we’ll pack them into an Interplanetary CubeSat this mission with on-board propulsion which will take them most of the way to the moon more quickly than if they were trying to do it by themselves and also provide a helping hand with data relay and navigation.

What kind of useful data are you planning on getting from something so tiny?  

There’s actually a huge amount we can do, from measuring the properties of the neutral wind in Earth’s thermosphere (upper atmosphere), to looking at the solar wind and radiation environment in cis-lunar space, to the radio environment in low lunar orbit, as well as performing a number of technical demonstrations of the underlying technology and future possibilities.

Scouts can have many types of instruments including accelerometers, gyroscope, Langmuir probes, magnetometer, micro-meteorite detector, single pixel optical sensor, strain gauge, temperature sensor, and more. As we’re using printable electronics, users can actually design their own instruments and fly them without us having to be involved in the design process so we hope many instruments we haven’t thought of to be created and flown with their data being returned via the standard communications infrastructure we provide.

There’s obviously not much room for much on these things, how do you get the data off of them?  Will the “mothership” be a relay for all the Pocket spacecraft transmissions?

Each spacecraft has a small 10mW direct-sequence spread spectrum radio transceiver on board. 10mW isn’t very much, (some will have the option of boosting this to 500mW) but it is enough for the Scouts to transmit their data directly to Earth when they are close enough, and to make contact with the CubeSat which then relays the data with its more powerful transceiver when they are further away. We use very large ground infrastructure (25m+ dishes) on the ground so we can simplify and use less powerful hardware in space. Where possible we use industry standard communications based on the CCSDS standards such as CFDP and Prox-1 as we want to be compatible with Deep Space Network and other spacecraft and infrastructure whenever practical.

As someone who has tracked a surprisingly large number of all of those “high end exploration systems,” including the aforementioned Voyager 1, with the Deep Space Network you can understand my skepticism of receiving any signal directly from such a tiny transmitter.  Your campaign mentions refurbishing 2 “high performance ground stations” is that refurbishing a part of this campaign?  

We will make sure that those ground stations are compatible with the mission so we will be providing them with access to the necessary hardware and software to be compatible with the mission, but the main refurbishment is a separate project.

We’re ground segment agnostic – we have the minimum amount of ground station infrastructure to allow us to operate the mission without help from others if we have to, but we have agreements to allow us to create a ‘shadow DSN’ by using infrastructure belonging to amateur radio enthusiasts, commercial organisations, non-profits and universities around the world for the mission to allow us to gain similar coverage to the DSN.

We will also apply to use the actual Deep Space Network (DSN) as per any other deep space mission although at about $1000 per hour that is one of the more expensive options. The signals are small but the physics all works – the communications architecture has been carefully designed to work at the distances we need to with readily available infrastructure on Earth and inexpensive systems in space.

What is the long term goal for the Pocket Spacecraft concept?  Is the idea similar to crowdsourcing in that if you throw enough, weak individually, sensor gathering instruments at something you can piece together a larger overall data image then fewer but more powerful instruments?  

We want to enable missions that wouldn’t be done any other way, because they are too expensive, not high enough priority for a space agency to fund, or because it is too dangerous or risky to send a single large, very expensive spacecraft to investigate something or try a radically new idea.

For example, if you want to take a close up look at the rings of Saturn as many scientists would love to, it would be far too risky to send a single billion dollar mission into the rings as they are thought to be essentially a large pile of ice particles moving at very high speed through space and would likely instantly destroy the spacecraft. However one might send thousands of thin-film devices into such a hostile environment and discover things about the properties of the system by looking at their rate of attrition from the ones that are destroyed and the data and perhaps images that come back from the ones that survive.

If you want to deploy a planet wide seismology network on Mars for example, you might drop thousands of thin-film devices into orbit from an Interplanetary CubeSat to flutter from orbit to the surface all around the planet rather than having to design a large rover that can drive all around the planet.

The other thing we want to do is to crowdsource spacecraft design. There aren’t that many spacecraft and mission designers in the world – JPL employs about 5000 people for example. We want to give hundreds of thousands or even millions of hobbyists the ability to design, build and fly spacecraft software, hardware and missions and to build up libraries of flight tested reusable open source designs. With personal spacecraft we’re looking to kick start the personal space age much like the first personal computers revolutionised the world of computing. We want to give everyone hands on access to space exploration.

Some would say sending smaller spacecraft within an already small ride along spacecraft to be crazy.  Yet as friend of the site Michael Laine proved sometimes crazy is what space demands.  Which do you think folks find more “off the wall” your Pocket Spacecraft or Liftport Group’s lunar space elevator?  

I’d say the space elevator as we know how to do Pocket Spacecraft and can fly the off the shelf technology as soon as we receive the relatively modest sum we are looking for. There’s no great technology innovation or major problem that needs to be solved before we can implement our mission – we’re standing on the shoulders of giants in the printed and flexible electronics and semiconductor industries plus ten years of experience from the CubeSat world and just applying it to a different problem. People understand how powerful the smartphone in their pocket is – we’re essentially just flying simplified smartphones in space and using actual smartphones on the ground for mission control!

What inspired the Pocket Spacecraft concept?  

I originally trained as a physicist at Imperial College London and was fortunate to work on a few space related projects in the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group there which reinforced a childhood interest in space exploration. I then ran a software company for more than a decade and in 2009 I finished doing that and was looking for a new challenge. I was looking at an amazing night sky over the Alps one night and wondered why relatively speaking we did so few space missions given the advances of Moore’s Law, consumer electronics and open source software projects such as Linux. I did some back of the envelope calculations to see what it might take to try and send a spacecraft to orbit or land on every body in the solar system - there are more than a million with a diameter greater than half a kilometre. That then set me off on the path to developing the open source space system, the infrastructure and flight platforms to support such missions: plus a couple of dozen other open source space projects are where it has lead so far.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

Probably through an article in Wired although I can’t remember for sure. In 2011 I was invited to join the Space Systems Design Studio at Cornell University as a visiting scientist to work on a dispenser for ChipSats as a result of earlier work I had done on a 100g class Arduino based spacecraft I had previously developed as part of the Open Source Space System called myPocketQub. Unfortunately I discovered they didn’t have any money to fund this and grant applications typically take six months or more to be awarded, so before I started there I created the KickSat project on Kickstarter along with a graduate student in the group to quickly raise the money to allow this to be tried, see if there was interest from members of the public to do this, and to pay me! That was successful (KickSat and more than 100 ChipSat proof of concept spacecraft are scheduled to be launched by NASA later this year) and proved that there was an interest in personal spacecraft, so when I was ready to test the next step of interplanetary exploration, Kickstarter was the obvious place to turn.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

One of the challenges for space exploration is that not only do you have to keep people interested during the Kickstarter campaign, but throughout a mission that will take several years. Mission to the Moon, for example, will take three years to deliver after the Kickstarter funding period is finished. We’re therefore trying to keep people interested by providing technical background and insights into the process, mainly through updates, Twitter and Facebook, but also by giving public talks and press coverage. The difficulty delivering instant gratification for space exploration is one of the biggest challenges we face however – waiting three years from backing a project to final payoff is a big thing to ask. One of the reasons we’re working with printed electronics is that we eventually want to be printing spacecraft on demand in space – log into a web site, make your design, hit print and have your spacecraft pop out on orbit a few minutes or hours later. This project is one step on the path to making that a reality.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

We’ve had worldwide coverage in the mass media from newspapers, TV, radio and blogs on all continents except Antarctica I think! We’ve found mass media, blogs and Twitter to be the most effective means of getting pledges. We don’t have budget for advertising (we’re a open source open access volunteer project) so we’re only using free publicity methods. We keep an eye on Kicktraq but tend to keep track of pledges using internal spreadsheets as pledges come in as it is easier to try and map what publicity efforts have lead to what pledges by tracking it in house.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Go for it but be upfront about the risks. Space exploration is an inherently risky activity and people often wonder why our risks section is so long. We’re doing something difficult and risky which many people are prepared to back, but I believe one has to be upfront and open about all the very real challenges that space exploration projects face - failure is an option.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

If you have ever dreamt of having your own spacecraft in space, please back our project! This project simply won’t happen without backing from members of the Kickstarter community – there’s a saying in the space business – no bucks, no Buck Rogers, so if you would like to see the mass exploration of space become a reality, visit or and back a spacecraft today!

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!