DIY Satellite Platforms

You can send a do-it-yourself satellite into space, one that piggybacks on a commercial rocket. This pico-satellite must conform to a set of dimensions about the size of a soda can. The minimum price of a launch is $12,000 and dropping. All the other rules, constraints, and questions you’ll need to build are covered in this very basic intro. Author Sandy Antunes is writing a master guide one small booklet at a time so check out his other titles in this series.

-- KK  

DIY Satellite Platforms
Sandy Antunes
2012, 86 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

Sample excerpts:

Size and weight build model for a tubesat-type 1kg limit picosatellite

First: where will your picosatellite go? It’s nearly a given that your picosatellite will go to low earth orbit (LEO), a broad band ranging from about 150km up to perhaps 600km.
Above the ionosphere, the space environment can be hostile because of solar activity. Below it, the radiation risks are much lower. This is why the ISS is kept in LEO. LEO is, at heart, about as safe as space can get. It’s also where your picosatellite is likely to live.

Your orbit is entirely determined by what your rocket provider has sold you. At the hobbyist level, you’re going to most likely get a standard 250km or so nearly circular orbit, either equatorial or polar. Such an orbit lasts (because of drag by the tenuous ionosphere) from 3 to 16 weeks before the satellite will suffer a fiery reentry.

At picosatellite masses, this means your satellite will go up and not return. You have less than three months to gather data. The picosatellite will then, essentially, vaporize neatly upon reentry (no space junk risk!)


Let’s close with the idea of flight spares. The idea here is twofold. First, it is good to have a second satellite ready in case a mishap occurs to the first. Mishaps can range from rocket blew up all the way down to a mundane dropped it while carrying it to the truck.

Conceptually and more important, you want to build two or three satellites simultaneously for two reasons. First, you may make a construction mistake with one. Having a spare means you can continue to work without having to wait for new parts or fabrication.

Second, you will build one better than the other. Statistically, one of your builds will have better performance than the other. This better one is the one you will fly. By creating multiple builds, you give yourself and your skills a chance to practice, hone, and ultimately create a better picosatellite.

So build two and fly the one that does best in tests.


The lowest fixed-price offering out there is InterOrbital Systems offering 1kg TubeSat launches for $8,000 (including a TubeSat kit) or a 1kg 1U CubeSat launch for $12,500. The company is still building toward its first launch, however.

InterOrbital Systems CPM mobile launch rail (image Copyright InterOrbital Systems 1996-2011)


Factual eBook Review

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Download the Universe
The Science EBook Review

This is pretty good. A site that reviews original science-based long-form factuals on ebooks. OK, that means serious non-fiction that is shorter than a book, but longer than a normal magazine article, yet that is only available as an ebook, and not available on paper or previously published. In other words a true digitally native “book.” These new things also colonize a middle duration between a blog post and a epic saga. They take a couple of hours to finish reading rather than days, and more than minutes. This emerging genre sports the marvelous compression and intense editing of a good magazine story, but gives the subject a bit more depth. And the e-booklets generally sell for $3 or less, download instantly, say as a Kindle Single. Amazon itself is publishing these at a rapid rate, dealing with authors directly. TED conference is publishing them. Scientific America is publishing them. And this website, a gang of science writers, is reviewing them. So far, the quality is great.

I am using it to find great writing about fascinating topics where I don’t want or need a whole book. This is a bright spot in an industry that could use a bright spot.

— KK



Super sensitive digital scale

A reader in Ask Cool Tools was looking for a cheap digital scale that could weigh items to a precision of 0.01 gram. Most kitchen scales run on a precision a magnitude lower at 0.1 gram. You’ll need a wind shield for scales this sensitive because air currents will disrupt the reading at this level.

— KK

Digital 0.01-gram resolution scales are plentiful and very inexpensive (< $20) on eBay and other online retailers. Most of them have a small, flat stainless steel pan, and tare for a container, making them convenient for use with small quantities of food. I used one from eBay identical to this unit and was satisfied with the performance. Note that I was using it for balancing motorcycle pistons, a less demanding task than some others.

Note that you can also obtain scale weight sets for calibration.

I believe that general-use precision weighing of small, light-weight objects is a problem solved by any one of these small,inexpensive digital scales.


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American Weigh Scale Scalemate Sm-501 Digital Pocket Scale, Silver, 500 X 0.01 G
$25 from Amazon

Commenter Stefan Murphy notes that the above item has less than 2.5-star reviews on Amazon. He found a better option with all 5-star reviews, that is also 2/3 the price. However the max weight is only 100 grams, instead of 500. He says, ” A little poking around, and based on reviews the below looks to be much better. I’m in the market for a product like this and will be purchasing the below.”

American Weigh Scale Ac-100 Digital Pocket Gram Scale, Black, 100 G X 0.01 G, $11

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Note: It is worth keeping in mind that when you pay $20 or less for a 0.01 gram scale, you are getting what you pay for. These may be sufficient for your needs, but if you truly need 0.01 gram precision, you aren’t likely to get it. Definitely invest in, not one, but two calibration weights, and check the scale before each use. I say use two weights because the scale may calibrate correctly at, say, 1 gram, but its linearity may be off, and it may be off at every other weight. If you calibrate using one weight and then the scale weighs correctly using a different weight, it is more likely that it is working properly.

You should also note that battery-operated scales will usually require recalibration as the batteries get weaker and their output voltage changes. And keep in mind also that temperature plays a large role in the scale’s weighing. You may find that the scale produces different results after it has been turned on for five minutes and its internal circuitry has warmed up (from the electricity flowing through it).– Joshua Bardwell


The Scale of the Universe 2


This is a cool tool for comprehending, appreciating, and demonstrating the scale of our universe. I used to recommend Charles and Ray Eames‘ classic film, Powers of Ten, as the best way to get a sense of our cosmos. It’s still effective, but two bothers have made an on-line portal that blows Powers of Ten away.

Check out The Scale of the Universe 2. It takes a minute to load. Once ready, be prepared to have your horizons stretched. I like the way they pile in the expected and unexpected size examples, which anchor the scale in a refreshing way. The continuous zoom is what makes this device work, rather than the quantum powers of ten of the film. (In fact you can read off the powers of ten in this model as well.) And the fact that you drive the slider. And like anytime you drive, you get a better sense of the place than you do as a mere passenger.

For the first time, I really got a visceral sense of our place in the universe. As many have noted before (but none have explained) we — our visible bodies — are located approximately in the middle of the universe’s size range. The largest things we know and the smallest things we know are roughly the same magnitude away from us.

And BTW, this app is what electronic “publishing” is really about.

— KK


Belomo 10x Triplet Loupe


A few months ago I picked up a Belomo 10x Triplet Loupe to help out with mushroom identification in the field. As someone who has more experience with camera lenses than loupes, I didn’t know what to expect. What arrived was an immaculately crafted magnifying device that I now carry on a daily basis.

Built by the Belarus Optical and Mechanical Enterprise Company (they once made high quality optics for the Soviet Union during the Cold War), the minuscule 10x loupe radiates a quality of craft and “thingness” that I’ve previously only seen in Leica glass. This comparison is in part owed to the superb optics, but also to the textured black enamel that coats the folding steel case coupled with its solid build quality.

The loupe itself is compact, quick to fold out, and easy to use. Between using it to identify mushrooms, to seeing the destruction I wreak on my fingernails, or the dulled edge of my kitchen knives, I have found the ability to easily magnify anything 10x (or more) has given me a renewed appreciation for the smaller things in life.

My decision to pick up the 10x magnification instead of the 15x or 20x was driven by cost and usability. Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree that 10x had the best balance between field of view, depth of field, and cost. Unlike other loupes where you can change magnification through opening up additional lenses, the Belomo relies on a single lens system that reduces the chance of breaking, while providing greater optical quality and increased light. The image quality is really fantastic.

One of the best features of the Belomo Loupe is the ability to incorporate it as an external macro lens with my iPhone camera. The small sensor size coupled with the Loupe means that it has enough depth of field to create photos I can use to identify when I get home. I’ve been blown away with the results.

The Belomo loupe is a fantastic EDC tool that provides a new way to look at the world. I can’t recommend it enough.

-- Oliver Hulland  

Belomo 10x Triplet Loupe

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by BelOMO

ViTiny USB Digital Microscope


I have had this handheld USB digital microscope for a couple of months and have found it really handy for working with anything with small geometries, or whenever I want to see something really small. The optical magnification range is 1x to 80x, but is advertised as having even higher magnification through digital zoom (basically, just zooming in on the digital image).

The bang-for-buck is huge even if you don’t need to look at high-resolution negatives from some spy-plane. It can be used at a broad range of magnifications, from microscopic (the fibers in paper look like a log-jam) to its alternate use as a webcam by just changing the distance and re-focusing. It really shines when you put it against something you need a close look at because of its built in light source, two magnification levels set by spinning the focus ring, and the Windows-only software that lets you do calibrated on-screen measurements and side-by-side comparisons with one side live.

The price is low enough you might suspect it’s a toy instead of a tool, but it’s serious hardware. It has a 2 mega-pixel sensor, with decent optics and enough configurable image control to satisfy the geekiest tool buff, but the defaults make it simple and practical to use right out of the box.

There are other USB microscopes out there, but this one is affordable and has so much utility that it’s fun to use. Last time I loaned it out it took weeks to get back because everyone who tried it had to show someone else the snazzy little tool they’d just ordered for themselves.

-- Jon Crabtree  

Vi-Tiny USB Digital Microscope
Windows XP/Vista/7 Compatible (no support for Mac OSX)

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by ViTiny

Elemental Scientific


This is the best source for buying small quantities of chemicals — always a challenge in these days of chemical hysteria. Elemental Scientific will sell to individuals, online, with no paperwork or license needed. They have a very respectable selection of about 300 reagents and compounds. More than enough for most educational purposes, or for most basement experiments. You can purchase all kinds of acids, corrosives, poisons, explosives and dangerous stuff that you can not get elsewhere — but only in small quantities. That’s fine, because a small amount is often all you want for doing experiments, and many chemical supply outfits will sell only larger quantities if they sell to you at all. Elemental also offers glassware, lab equipment, and general experimental paraphernalia. They cater to homeschoolers and hobby experimentalists. If you’ve ever tried to buy chemicals elsewhere you’ll recognize what an incredible resource this place is. Most chemicals will be shipped UPS, but a short list of 18 especially hazardous chemicals need extra hazmat protection, which is an added charge.

-- KK  

Carson MicroBrite

We discovered this microscope while traveling in Paris, where it was recommended by a staffer at Nature & Decouvertes, who told us it was incredible for the price — about $10 at the time. Was he ever right.

It comes with a base and a slide with some cotton cloth as a sample, but in practice we never use the base or slide. We just place the microscope on anything we want to look at, and click the LED light on for a terrific view. There is a 20x-40x zoom, as well as adjustable focus. It’s good enough that we end up fighting our kids to play with it. With it we’ve studied leaves, flowers, color printing (kids are surprised by the dot patterns), currency, rugs, even our own fingerprints.

-- Brian Fleming  

Carson MicroBrite MM-24 Pocket Microscope

Available from Amazon

$10 from Optics Planet Manufactured by Carson

Theo Gray’s Mad Science

This is a rare home-chemistry book where the advice of “don’t try this at home” is, for once, appropriate. I usually complain about the scare mongering of home chemistry, but half of the experiments in this how-to book really are extremely dangerous. But the other half are pretty cool. There are no explicit step-by-step instructions given for any of the experiments, just guidelines of what to do. Gray, whose column appears in Popular Science, wants you to do some research and not just be a “script kiddie.” Stunning photos of what to expect from each project help. My son and I have done a few of these and they do work. The prime lesson engendered by this book is the sense that the material world is far more accessible to hacking than first appears.

-- KK  

Theo Gray’s Mad Science
Theodore Gray
2009, 240 pages

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

[warning box near instructions for combing sodium and chlorine to make table salt]
Real Danger Alert: This is the most dangerous experiment in this book. Sodium burns skin and eyes on contact and explodes when exposed to water in any form, sending flaming liquid metal in all directions at high velocity. Chlorine gas kills painfully and spreads rapidly. Under no circumstances should either of these chemicals be handled outside the presence of an experienced chemist. Combining them borders on lunacy.



FULL OF HOT AIR The exhaust port on a vacuum blows air from below, turning an ordinary grill into a raging inferno, capable of melting glass, iron, even itself if left unchecked.

All the components of glass can be found in two places: the beach and the laundry room. It’s possible to melt pure-white silica beach sand into glass, but only at temperatures of 3,000 to 3,500°F. Washing soda, lime or borax (a traditional laundry aid) added to the sand disrupts the quartz-crystal structure of silica and reduces the required temperatures to a more practical, though still dangerous 2,000 °F, which I achieved with a backyard grill and a vacuum cleaner.

A charcoal fire fed with air from the bottom is hot enough to melt the combination of those materials into glass but not hot enough to make it truly liquid, so bubbles tend to remain and make the glass cloudy. I mixed the finely ground ingredients together and heated them in a cast-iron pot, then poured the molten glass into a graphite mold and pressed it down with a graphite stamp.

Soda-lime glass has the lowest melting point but must be cooled slowly to avoid shattering from the thermal stress.



PEPSI PAINTING Tinfoil distributes the current to form a pattern through a stencil and a layer of paper towel moistened with Diet Pepsi.


Homemade Titanium: With lots of heat, some flowerpots and common chemicals, you can turn raw ore into shiny metal.

An iron crowbar costs about $8; one made of titanium, $80. Solid-titanium scissors start at $700, and don’t even ask about the titanium socket wrench. Titanium must be a rare and precious substance, right?

Actually, as raw ore, titanium is 100 times as abundant as copper. … At temperatures high enough to melt it, titanium exposed to air catches fire. So it has to be refined, forged, welded, and cast in a vacuum or under inert gas–an expensive process.

Yet I was able to make titanium using equipment I had lying around. I did it with thermite reduction, a process commonly used to weld train tracks. In an iron thermite reaction, iron oxide reacts with aluminum and comes out as liquid iron. I just swapped in titanium dioxide instead. But that reaction, in which titanium dioxide transfers its oxygen atoms to aluminum, doesn’t release enough heat to melt the materials.

So I mixed in drywall plaster (calcium sulfate) and more aluminum powder. They react to create huge amounts of extra heat, enough to melt the titanium and allow it to pool at the bottom of the container. Adding ground fluorite powder makes the molten metals more fluid and protects the titanium from air as it cools.

I used clay flowerpots, as suggested by Gert Meyer, who developed this procedure. When nested with sand between them, they last just long enough to let the titanium cool into beads of solid metal.

Many of the topics I write about are things I did when I was growing up, and I survived. Without those experiences I might have ended up as a stock broker, or worse.

Science is not something practiced only in labs and universities. It’s a way of looking at the world and seeing truth and beauty everywhere. It’s something you can do whether you are employed as a professional scientist or not. While I have a degree in chemistry from a fine university, I’ve never worked as a professional chemist. I do these demonstrations in my shop on a rural farmstead half a mile from the nearest neighbor. (This is handy when exploring the louder aspects of chemistry.) Mostly I use simple kitchen and shop supplies and chemicals from the hardware store or garden center. I do avoid working in a real lab, because I would much rather tinker in my shop and find a simpler (some might say cruder) way of making the experiment work. Amateur scientists, many of them self-taught, tinkering in their shops and basements have done great things. Using a spirit of making do with what they have and seeing just how far they can take it, they make real contributions to the advancement of science.


It makes me cringe when I see warnings to wear gloves and safety glasses while working with baking soda. It’s called crying wolf, and it’s deeply irresponsible, because it makes it that much harder to get through to people about real dangers.


Some other chemicals, however, are not your friends. Chlorine gas kills, and you hurt the whole time you’re dying. Mix phosphorus and chlorates wrong and they blow up while you’re mixing them. (I have a friend who still has tiny slivers of glass coming out of his hands twenty years after he made that particular mistake.)

Every chemical, every procedure, every experiment has its own unique set of dangers, and over the years people have learned (the hard way) how to deal with them. In many cases the only way to do an experiment safely is to find a more experienced person to help. This is not book-learning, it’s your life at stake and you want someone by your side who knows what they are doing. There is an unbroken chain of these people leading right back to the first guy who survived, and you want to be part of that chain.

When I do an experiment that looks crazy I either have someone with me who’s done it before, or it’s something that I’ve worked my way up to slowly and carefully. I build in layers of safety, and I make sure that if all else fails I have a clear path to run like hell (and of course I wear glasses at all times).

Anchor Optics

Remember Edmund Scientific, the perennial advertiser in the back of science magazines? They sold lenses in addition to all kinds of scientific knick-knacks and basement experimenter supplies. Anchor Optics is a division of Edmund’s upscale optics company, selling mostly to professionals, but at a discount. They’ve got loupes and microscopes, but also Fresnel lenses, commercial grade front-side mirrors, laser parts, optical bench gear, prisms, and advance fiber optic stuff — just about anything optical you can imagine at good prices, Anchor sells Edmund’s surplus or “seconds” — but only second in some cosmetic or inessential way. If you need a lens or an optical flat mirror of a certain size, you’ll probably end up here.

— KK

Anchor Optics