Get ready for tweets from space.
Just before midnight Pacific Standard time last night, SkyCube, the crowd-funded, twittering, nano-satellite was deployed from the International Space Station, where it had been stored since it was taken into space aboard an Antares rocket in January. This was the moment that the training wheels would come off, and the satellite's creators, including team leader Tim DeBenedictis, and the projects Kickstarter funders, would find out if their device was working.
There was plenty that still could go wrong, according to DeBenedictis. "SkyCube has been in cold and dark storage for 4 months. We never tested how the batteries hold charge over that long," he said. "they may have discharged." Forty-five minutes after initial deployment, SkyCube's solar panels and radio antennas came to life, just as SkyCube came into the direct path of the sun's light. If everything was working properly, ground control would be able to communicate with the satellite as it passed overhead, downloading telemetry files from the CFTNS.
The first passes over ground came at 3 and 4:30 am Pacific time, when SkyCube orbited over Australia. A signal went out. No response. That wasn't surprising—it takes time for the solar arrays to gather enough energy to power these kinds of satellites. DeBenedictis didn't expect to hear anything. Some teams have taken up to weeks to establish contact. The next chance would be around 8:00 am, as the CFTNS passed over New Mexico. DeBenedicts would try again.
At 8 am, another hail went up from the ground. "We repeatedly sent it 'Get telemetry' commands, meaning 'send me your battery level, solar panel voltages, overall health level, etc.' Every 10 seconds or so. For the first minute or two, no response," wrote DeBenedictis in an email to supporters of the project. "Then the ground radio started detecting signal, then a digital signal. It wasn't quite strong enough to fully decode all the bits, but there was definitely signal coming back. The signal stopped coming back when the satellite crossed over the horizon, as expected. The guys here are 100% sure that was signal from the satellite." As he put it, "the patient is alive."
As we wrote about last April, the CFTNS is a four-pound, four-inch on a side cuboid that will orbit the earth, sending out personalized tweets written by those who donated to the project on kickstarter. DeBenedicts told us last month, just before the launch, that one of the project goals was the reawaken popular interest in space exploration and use: "The American space program has been sleepy. It’s remote, removed. People like it, but it’s not participatory. Twitter may be banal, but it’s yours."
Check back for updates on the SkyCube, the crowd-funded, Twittering, nano-satellite.