Getting your own hardware into space costs thousands of dollars. AmbaSat is looking to change that.
The words “satellite technology” generally bring to mind images of huge pieces of hardware sitting in clean room. For a while, all man-made satellites were basically just that: large pieces of hardware that governments or corporations would spend millions of dollars developing and launching. Along CubeSats: standardized mini-satellites that hitch a ride on larger missions. You can pay tens of thousands of dollars to launch a CubeSat, or various organizations offer a certain number of free CubeSat launches for scientific missions.
CubeSats brought space technology a little closer to the masses; instead of large corporations or governments having a monopoly on space hardware, it’s now possible for universities or high schools to develop a CubeSat and launch it at relatively little cost. CubeSats are still well out of the reach of makers, however, as development/testing often takes years and a budget of tens of thousands of dollars.
In addition to simply developing and launching a CubeSat, supporting it on the ground is no easy task. Almost all CubeSats launched to date require a groundstation to send commands to the satellite and receive its data. Additionally, the CubeSat will only be overhead for minutes at a time, making it difficult to transfer large amounts of data. Many transmitters also require licenses from the FCC.
AmbaSatis completely revolutionizing this concept with their micro-satellites designed for makers. AmbaSat’s AmbaSat-1 is essentially a printed circuit board with a microcontroller, a solar panel, some sensors, and communications hardware. You first purchase the satellite hardware from AmbaSat, develop your own firmware for the device, and ship it back to them. AmbaSat will then test your device and launch it into space. The micro-satellites themselves are actually launched from a CubeSat to cut down on launch costs.
AmbaSat-1 is special for a number of reasons. First, all of its hardware designs are open source and relatively simple. The design of the device shares many of the same characteristics as a typical microcontroller, because it basically is. AmbaSat-1 uses an ATmega328, some sensors, power regulators, and a radio. Since the device uses an ATmega328, it is fully Arduino-compatible. It also features a modular sensor design that allows for extensive sensor customization. The satellite receives power from a solar panel mounted to the back of the circuit board.
Second is the cost. The components are all off-the-shelf, and the satellite “body” is nothing but a printed circuit board. You can buy a kit to assemble the satellite for around $50, or the satellite kit with launch included for $250. All you would need to do is write some software for the device to perform your intended function — AmbaSat’s team takes care of all the testing and mission integration.
Third, and what I consider to be the most innovative aspect of the mission, is the communications setup. Rather than develop groundstations for the satellites, AmbaSat is using maker-friendly LoRaWAN technology and The Things Network to provide groundstation services. The Things Network is traditionally used for remote sensing missions. LoRaWAN radios enables off-the-grid devices to send data packets to internet-connected groundstations with relatively little power. The Things Network has many of these such gateways in its system, providing decent coverage for large areas.
This same technology is remarkably well suited to satellites. Satellites offer a direct line of sight from transmitter to receiver, allowing the LoRaWAN radio on AmbaSat-1 to reach The Things Network gateways using less than 1W from many miles up. The distributed nature of the gateways means that you’ll have constant contact with your satellite for a large portion of its orbit.
AmbaSat is currently on Kickstarter, with expected delivery of the satellites in October of this year. The project is not yet fully funded, with funding closing on July 6th.