ThumbSats – Unlocking space for everyone

ThumbSats – Unlocking space for everyone

Sometimes, great ideas seem to just appear from nowhere and in isolation, but that’s rarely the case. To borrow a phrase that Sir Isaac Newton himself borrowed from others:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The story of ThumbSat is actually a collection of fascinating interlinked stories, it’s as if the universe conspired to make it happen.

It all began on Mars.

I was heavily involved in the first ever successful European soft landing on the Red Planet – Beagle2 – and it was during that project that I met the brilliantly eccentric dentist/space engineer/adventurer, Dr TC Ng. He led the team at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that was developing a drill for the lander.

TC is fascinated by the pyramids. He wanted me to help him to explore mysterious “tunnels” in the Great Pyramid. Farouk El-Baz (what a guy!) championed the project. Under the authority of Zahi Hawass at the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, and via the brilliant team at Leeds University, we built a robotic explorer called Djedi, that discovered unusual written characters in the pyramid that had lain hidden for 4500 years.

The Djedi project may well have stalled if not for a particular guy introducing me to Dassault Systèmes “Passion for Innovation” programme. This company welcomed the project with open arms and generously provided support and software to help to build the Djedi robot, but it also provided me with great friends.

Those friends, especially Richard Breitner, introduced me to the amazing French artist, Anilore Banon. Anilore’s Vitae Project is going to put a sculpture on the moon – why not?! I was asked to help. I love the art aspect, but from a professional and technical perspective, I approach it like any other payload. It’s incredibly challenging but phenomenally exciting. It really has the power to change the world.

The Vitae Project involves novel materials and multiple stages. I wanted to test one particular material in microgravity and vacuum, but it was next to impossible to find a reliable, rapid and low cost way to do this. I didn’t need a lot of mass or volume, I just needed to put a small sample of the material into Low Earth Orbit and observe what happens. Yes, I was inspired by tiny satellite kits that were available, but that’s all they were – kits. I needed a complete service to put my sample into space, to observe it, and to download data. So I started thinking… and that thinking eventually became ThumbSat.

For designing and building the initial test circuit boards, I turned to my good friend in Lithuania, Gediminas Strazdas. Gediminas had already worked with me to build the multiple “brains” of the Djedi robot, and he’s doing a great job on ThumbSat.

I needed another ally, and he came from an unusual source – a treasure chest full of gold hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The treasure was hidden by a unique guy called Forrest Fenn, who wrote a poem. Decipher the clues in the poem, and you can find his treasure. Wade Van Landingham was trying to solve those clues, and he contacted me, as I had written about the hunt on my own website. As well as serious archaeology, I have fun finding and hiding other treasures. One thing led to another, and it turned out that Wade had just the right skillset to help push ThumbSat and ThumbNet forward. Even better, it was a “two-for-one”, because Wade’s wife Cheryl has since joined the team, becoming a considerable driving force behind ThumbNet. Wade and Cheryl have proven to be a far more valuable treasure than that of Forrest Fenn, but I may change my mind when I recover that chest full of gold!

While we were building ThumbSat and ThumbNet, thanks to many volunteers and contacts, we still needed a bigger push. My good friend Armin Ellis invited me to the inaugural summit of the Exploration Institute at Caltech, where explorers, storytellers and investors are brought together in a superbly curated environment to make things happen. I was in awe of the extraordinary invitees to that event, but also the great minds that have been present on that campus over the years. We were discussing projects in the little old building where Einstein and Feynman would lock the doors to discuss life, the universe and everything. My own brain felt pretty small.

Einstein and Feynman’s magic must have had some effect, because I met a very bright investor from Mexico, who represented Simple Complexity and MXSpace. Together, we have gone on to establish a manufacturing facility in Tijuana.

The Exploration Institute was also where I met the designer, illustrator, writer and all-round great guy Stefan Bucher, and not only is he sending something wonderful to space on a ThumbSat, he’s also had an invaluable input to the design and feel of the website and other ThumbSat media, where he has worked with our highly capable web designer and builder Daz Bowler.

Fraser Robinson is the latest team member, and he has taken on the systems engineering activities, freeing up some of my time for planning the strategy and bigger things, and for a small satellite, we have some REALLY big things planned…

There’s no point in having lots of satellites if you can’t get them into orbit, and we’re looking for very special ways to get to space, ways that suit the ThumbSat philosophy of speed, efficiency, and great value. While looking around for small launchers, I discovered rocket guy Rick Maschek, and Rick pointed me towards Rocket Lab. It’s clear that Rocket Lab’s Electron is the perfect fit for ThumbSat.

I’ve always dreamed of building my own rocket too, and this is coming true with the “StratoBooster” – a tiny suborbital shuttle that can potentially be used for ThumbSat launches. I had the amazing good fortune to discover Yariv Huss, creator of VSKYLABS. He has a wealth of experience, he has created some great simulations of the shuttle, and above all he’s a great guy.

ThumbSats are free spirits and they don’t want to remain attached to the parent launcher forever, so some sort of deployment device is needed. That’s where Josh Turner, a very capable student at the University of Leeds, worked his magic.

Myk Dormer of Radiometrix (and now Smallwireless Limited) really knows his stuff about radios, but equally importantly, he has shared his knowledge in a rapid, practical and helpful way.

The last thing on my wish-list for ThumbSat was the GPS, to make the science and communication so much more efficient and capable, but also to inform other space users of our location. I approached every major manufacturer around the world, but none could provide what we needed, despite months of negotiation. It seemed impossible, but finally! Jaroslav Laifr at SkyFox Labs gave us the perfect solution.

On the ThumbNet side, we’ve had volunteer schools and organisations from all corners of the globe, as you can see on the ThumbNet map. Every time I see a new addition to this map, it makes me feel so happy and proud. ThumbNet is based around robotic tracking stations, and I’d like to thank Liam Smith in the UK for playing a large part in the design of these.

I’ve deliberately left out some names and organisations who have made ThumbSat and ThumbNet possible, because they want to keep a low profile. However, I may have inadvertently forgotten some too. Please tell me if I have missed you out.

I hope you have enjoyed this ThumbSat story. I’d like you to become part of it. There’s a lot more to come.

-Shaun