Skip to main content

AMSAT Looks for an Easy-Sat Answer

For at least two decades, most radio amateurs getting involved with satellite communications have started on the "easy sats," FM birds that simplify hams' first forays into space. During this time, four satellites produced by AMSAT North America have been wildly popular. Two of them, AO-51 (2004-2011) and AO-85 (2015-2020), are now defunct. The others, AO-91 (2017- ) and AO-92 (2018- ), are limping toward their demise. While a few other FM satellites remain operational, and FM repeater operations are sometimes scheduled from the International Space Station, AMSAT-NA recently acknowledged it should have a role in repopulating the easy-sat stage.

Echo, or AO-51, in the lab. Photo: VE4NSA via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 

AO-51, launched in 2004, was operational for more than 7 years. Photo: VE4NSA.

In its 2021-2035 Strategic Plan, AMSAT committed to developing, deploying, and supporting a series of cubesats to operate in low Earth orbit (LEO). And in the July/August Apogee View, President Robert Bankston, KE4AL, prioritized options for meeting that promise.

Three Potential Paths

The AMSAT Board of Directors understandably rejects diverting or dividing the engineers now volunteering on the GOLF project (Greater Orbit, Larger Footprint). That's simply being realistic. The long-term advancement of amateur radio in space and the motivation of today's engaged volunteers are likely tied to this initiative. That means a separate, simultaneous effort is needed for FM LEO.

Bankston broaches and squelches the idea of an open-source solution in the span of a single sentence. Open source, he says, would work for design, but "there is no current precedent to allow the open-source building of a satellite under U.S. Export Administration Regulations."

Claiming lack of precedent is out of character for an organization that takes pride in its pioneering past. More likely, the reticence reflects AMSAT's stance on open-source spacecraft: anathema. For years AMSAT has bemoaned the constrictions of federal regulation, yet has necessarily adapted to that ecosystem. It has been reasonably effective within this niche, but has it become too comfortable wearing the bonds?

The third option, which by elimination is deemed the best, is to follow a commercial route to space. Bankston reports that just one company produces a 1U cubesat with an FM repeater and reveals a price tag over $283,000 for getting it ready and into orbit (with its flight spare standing by on Earth). A roughly equal amount would buy and launch two successors at intervals meant to ensure continued easy-sat availability over a decade.

AMSAT's course correction earlier this year, affirming the critical importance of FM repeaters in space, puts it in a tight spot. Which is the board willing to risk: Alienating the GOLF project team? Reaching a potential dead end on an open-source road? Or tarnishing its DIY reputation by injecting an appliance into orbit?

The most expedient route will satisfy most easy-sat ops and may even bolster the user base, but will donors accept buy-and-fly as a worthy stop-gap or reject it for being beyond the bounds of the AMSAT mission?

Update, October 11

I was curious about others' views so put a poll up on Twitter, where many of those who follow me are active satellite operators. Fewer than expected expressed an opinion. It was a very balanced outcome.

Update 2, October 30

The AMSAT-NA Board of Directors on October 29 approved the commercial avenue while deftly requiring 90 percent of the funding to come from external sources. The decision was announced at AMSAT's annual meeting today. Good luck, development team!

In his remarks, AMSAT President Robert Bankston, KE4AL, dropped a heavy hint that the organization is working toward internal development of future easy-sats. He acknowledged that current volunteers are stretched to the limit so recruitment of new talent will be essential.


Popular posts from this blog

SOTA: Pine Mountain, September 18, 2021

For a combination QRP Afield / New Hampshire QSO Party / SOTA excursion, I went to Pine Mountain ( W1/NL-022 ) in Alton, Belknap County, New Hampshire, a 45-minute drive. The summit is within the Evelyn H. & Albert D. Morse, Sr. Preserve , a property of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.  Google delivered me to the non-preferred parking place, which is a narrow, gravel roadside sloping to a ditch. I was the only one there. I walked the Mary Jane Morse Greenwood Trail, 1.2 kilometers and "strenuous" per SPNHF, with tall weeds and waist-high saplings in its center. Going up, I counted 7 monarchs, 1 woman, and 1 dog. The "Do Not Block Gate" sign is just to the right of this one. Monarch migration is under way. I counted 7 on the hike up and viewed others from the summit. My one roadblock was easy to overcome. Up top, I was surprised to find more people — a hawk watcher and two others. Since there hadn't been any other cars alo

SOTA: Parker Mountain, November 6, 2021

My first Trans-Atlantic S2S QSO Party, in November 2020, was so much fun I was sure to try again. When the first Saturday of November was announced for the 2021 event, I quickly put it on my calendar and hoped for decent weather. I got my wish. The forecast called for clear and comfortable. A couple of days ahead, I posted an alert for W1/NL-010 (Parker Mountain) at 1330 UTC. At 1,410 feet, this peak doesn't offer much elevation advantage, but it's only a half-hour drive from home and I had not yet activated it this year . I hadn't even reached the trailhead by 1300 (9 a.m local), but I was close enough by then to stop at a roadside high point for a quick photo of my destination. I pulled into a parking lot, popped out of the car, greeted the camo-uniformed soldier who was happening by, and got my landscape shot. I was just about to pull away when a steady stream of yellow-ribboned cadets poured out of the white-trimmed brick building that serves as a National Guard Train