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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

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.

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