Spacecraft kits known as CubeSats are about the size of a Pringles cylinder and can be built using off-the-shelf electronics. The DIY devices have long been used by students and funding-strapped NASA researchers as an inexpensive way to get their experiments into space.
But after more than a decade of tinkering, scientists and engineers are starting to bring their experiments to market.
In January, the San Francisco startup Planet Labs launched a constellation of several dozen CubeSats to create a more real-time, albeit fuzzier, version of Google Maps. Pasadena-based GeoOptics plans to launch a similar number of various size CubeSats to gather weather data at a cost several orders of magnitude cheaper than the billion-dollar satellites used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And NanoSatisfi, another Bay Area startup that has raised $1.6 million with the help of Kickstarter, rents its Arduino-controlled CubeSat to schools and space enthusiasts for $250 a week.