More than 50 years after humankind first set foot on the moon, only members of a very exclusive club have had the opportunity to travel in space. Though they may not be Virgin Galactic, two Sydney university students want to give more people the opportunity to learn from space by drastically reducing the cost of getting there.
Sebastian Chaoui, a student at the University of Technology Sydney, came up with the basics of the idea for Quberider while wondering why the commercial space industry was so restrictive. He contacted University of New South Wales student Solange Cunin, whom he had worked with previously at an internship, and together they formed Quberider.
The startup aims to reduce the cost of sending a satellite to space by pairing a client who wants to send up a hardware device with a number of clients sending up software – essentially ridesharing on a satellite. Each customer can create their own specific mission and get the cubesat to record the data they need.
“I realised there’s no real way to get people actively involved in space. Reducing the cost of access to space is something I felt really needs to happen to propel industry forward. In order for the industry to grow you need to get more people in space and developing for it and creating benefits of open access to space,” Chaoui said.
“We want to provide a development platform in space. We want to get school children and students to send their stuff up into space, and get traditional app developers to start developing for space.”
Quberider uses a type of nanosatellite called a cubesat, a 10cm-wide cube that weighs just over 1.3 kilograms and can be fitted with a variety of sensors and cameras. In terms of satellites, they are relatively easily to come by. They were originally designed with student use in mind, and so their design is available through open standards, with various companies providing construction kits.
While they’re very small, sending a cubesat into space isn’t cheap. Because cubesats need to hitch a ride with a larger satellite or rocket, launch costs a minimum of $200,000. NASA has a program launching cubesats created by student groups, but there’s no real way for those outside the space industry to get there without spending lots of cash.
Cunin and Chaoui officially launched as Quberider a few months ago. Since then, the development of the project has been funded by UTS, who has come on board as the hardware customer for the first mission and is therefore fronting the majority of the costs for the first mission.
As well as facilitating the ridesharing aspect, the other major part of what Quberider does is actually construct the satellite itself. Chaoui and Cunin put together the cubesat, integrate a hardware device and software within it, test it to make sure it will survive the launch and the elements of space, and then conduct mission operations.
While one may think the very matter of building a satellite to launch into space is the toughest part of the whole endeavour, Chaoui said the regulatory aspects are actually those causing some of the biggest headaches.
“Australia’s laws for space, and entering space, are very different to around the world, maybe because no one’s really been developing for space, so the laws haven’t really had a chance to be tested. The big problem here is actually getting permission from SLASO (Space Licensing and Safety Office),” he said.
These laws mean Chaoui and Cunin have had to look overseas for launch providers – companies that can actually launch the satellite into space. While NASA is one, there are a number of government agencies and other companies around the world providing the service. Some provide a direct launch, while a private company called Nanoracks sends the satellites to the International Space Station, where astronauts then deploy them.
Cunin and Chaoui hope to launch Quberider’s first mission by late 2016, giving themselves ample time to design the mission to reduce failure.
Chaoui said, “We want to generate interest in Australia and the Asia Pacific region to really get the industry going in this part of the world.”