SAN FRANCISCO — Someday, swarms of satellites the size of a tissue box will be snapping pictures, taking environmental readings and broadcasting messages from orbit — but the entities controlling those satellites won't be governments.
Instead, they'll be hard-core hobbyists and elementary-school students, entrepreneurs and hacktivists. In short, anyone who can afford a few hundred dollars to send something to the final frontier.
The technology for this outer-space revolution already exists: It's a type of satellite known as a CubeSat, which measures just 4 inches (10 centimeters) on a side. The CubeSat phenomenon started out as an educational experiment, but now it's turning into a crowdsourcing, crowdfunding movement of Kickstarter proportions. And not even the sky is the limit.
This year alone, more than two dozen CubeSats are due to go into orbit, piggybacking on commercial and government space launches.
"We had no idea CubeSats would go so far," Jordi Puig-Suari, an engineering professor at Cal Poly who is considered one of the inventors of the CubeSat concept, told NBC News in an email. "We were trying to develop a better system to educate students, and we did succeed at that. ... But we also created a whole new space ecosystem that we could not imagine at the time."
Part of that ecosystem is taking shape in a squat, gray building at the foot of a highway on-ramp in San Francisco. That's where a company called NanoSatisfi has brought together a small team of aerospace veterans and computer engineers to build CubeSats by hand, amid surroundings that look more like a Web startup's office than a space agency's clean room.
"We take advantage of all the industries on earth, from cellphones to smartphones to UAVs, robotics, all of that," said Peter Platzer, a former research physicist and Wall Street trader who co-founded NanoSatisfi last year.
It all starts with a hobbyist computer called an Arduino. For less than $200, anyone can buy an Arduino — basically a stripped-down motherboard — and start building gadgets like a self-balancing skateboard, a band of LEGO robots, or a flame-throwing pumpkin.
The engineers at NanoSatisfi decided to put those Arduinos to a more serious use: They installed the low-cost computers inside the standard CubeSat frame. NanoSatisfi’s first two satellites, dubbed ArduSats, will hitch a ride in August on a robotic Japanese cargo ship heading for the International Space Station — where they'll be kicked out into space using a spring-loaded launcher.
Video: NanoSatisfi's Peter Platzer explains the company's strategy.
The cost of building each ArduSat is close to $200,000, and launch costs amount to another $100,000 or so. That's far less than the price tag for large-scale satellites, which can range from $100 million to more than $1 billion. To get the project launched, Platzer and his partners raised more than $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and supplemented that amount with their own money and more than $1 million in venture-capital funding.
Once the ArduSats are active, NanoSatisfi's clients will be able to conduct their own experiments in space. Each satellite is equipped with 10 sensors — including a Geiger counter, a magnetometer and a camera. One of the satellites will be dedicated to schools. The other will be rented out at the rate of $250 per week, with special deals available for the Kickstarter contributors ( via nbcnews.com ).