Just How Do You Get a Smallsat into Orbit?

NPR’s Planet Money podcast documents the journey of a cubesat from design to launch.

The mission patch for NPR's Planet Money satellite, featuring their famed squirrel. (NPR / Photo by Annabel Edwards / Design by Ryan Troy Ford)
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One of the most popular series of episodes of NPR’s Planet Money podcast followed the making of a T-shirt around the world, from the cotton farm to the manufacturing factory. (Disclaimer: I bought one, with a squirrel proudly holding a martini glass, from the Kickstarter that helped fund the series. It’s a pretty great shirt.) Now, with that deft skill at detailed storytelling, the Planet Money team is going to space. Or at least, they’re going to tell us how they put a small satellite in space.

For readers of Air & Space, it will likely start out a bit basic, but (if it’s anything like the T-shirt project) will become fascinating once they really get into the details of how to get a private, affordable satellite into orbit. Their team began with the idea that sending their own satellite into space “seemed really impossible,” only to discover—with a little research, producer Elizabeth Kulas explains in the episode—that “it is actually the perfect time to go to space. We are in the middle of a satellite revolution. These satellites are getting smaller and cheaper and it’s easier to get to space. It’s like the early days of personal computers...and we can get in on it.”

To begin their journey, they found a “guide”: Bob Twiggs, who created cubesats in 1999. The first episode was released yesterday, and the next in the series will follow the team through the design, production, and launch of their satellite on an Orbital ATK Minotaur-C rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base last October. They’ll also visit Planet Labs, which had 10 smallsats in the same payload. Listen to the first episode below; the series concludes December 8.

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