Imagine a world where outer space is not all that distant. It is a world where we all can take a spacewalk – not just a select few astronauts. It is a world where people travel from the Earth to Mars, maybe not regularly, but it’s as simple as booking a ticket. It’s a world where the resources of the solar system – and beyond – are available and used for the betterment of mankind. Perhaps most importantly, it is a world where humanity is not just one stray asteroid’s strike away from extinction, as we have colonies on other planets.
The innovation that we’re discussing isn’t going to be propelling us to Mars any time soon; however, it is a critical first step. In order for humanity to become spacefaring, we need to give more people access to space. We need to give them the ability to take that critical first step: to put their own experiment, sensing system or other payload in orbit.
The OpenOrbiter spacecraft is designed to do just this. It is a fully-functional and highly-customizable CubeSat (a small spacecraft you can hold in your hand) that can be produced for only about $2,500. This means that schools, government agencies (from around the world), small businesses and potentially even individuals (who are able to secure a space launch – NASA, ESA and others make these available at no charge to educational institutions) can develop and own a spacecraft. They can ‘touch’ space and help prepare the next generation of explorers (who may actually go into orbit and beyond) with the technical skills, mindset and ambition required to push into the final frontier.
Unlike previous small spacecraft approaches, the OpenOrbiter concept is one of allowing customization. It isn’t a kit that must be bought and used as-is. Instead, it is a complete set of designs and other documentation for customizing and building your own CubeSat. Users can use the design as-is and make a spacecraft to which a payload can be easily added or they can choose to adapt or replace individual subsystems, component boards or whole areas of the satellite. As all of the documentation is readily available and non-proprietary, there is no ‘red tape’ impeding innovation.
To make the process easier for those without access to a complete set of fabrication facilities, members of the OpenOrbiter team are preparing to make components of the spacecraft and whole kits available commercially at pricing not significantly above the cost of components (if purchasing them one-off, the mass production obviously benefits from volume discounts, etc. that makes this commercially feasible). Prospective users, thus, can buy a single board, or most of the satellite and add to it, customize it or otherwise adapt it to their mission needs as desired.
The OpenOrbiter design will be tested and demonstrated via the OpenOrbiter I mission in late 2016 to early 2017. However, its impact should far exceed the satellite’s short time in the final frontier.