I've recently become interested in amateur satellite packet radio, and I've seen that the bandwidth and thus the bitrate is extremely low on most amateur satellites, not even factoring in noise. So I wanted to create my own (extremely small) amateur satellite which has an uplink and downlink in the gigahertz frequency range, which should provide the necessary bandwidth and bitrate I and many other amateur satellite packet radio enthusiasts are craving.

So how do we get a satellite in orbit?

What would it cost to piggyback on a space shuttle mission?

Is amateur rocketry a viable option to get a satellite into orbit and what would be the cost of such a project?

Are there any regulatory bodies that I should be aware of that enforce activities in the air and in space?

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    $\begingroup$ An extreamly small amateur satellite with its very small transmitting and receiving antennas and very small power would offer a low bitrate too when using the gigahertz range. To get a high bitrate, a powerful transmitter and a larger high gain directional antenna is necessary. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Dec 9, 2017 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ If you could get a weather balloon to not burst (bleeder valve?) you send a parcel Quite High, and have it stay up there longer. Not a "real" satellite, but achievable - and considerably cheaper. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2017 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ Planet Money did a series of podcasts on launching 'their' satellite into orbit. It only costs about $50k. npr.org/sections/money/2017/12/01/567267573/… You'll probably want a CubeSat. It's like what containerization did to global commerce shipping. $\endgroup$
    – Chloe
    Dec 10, 2017 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ You're aware that the shuttle program ended, right? $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2017 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Pharap, they are at least using a different meaning of the word "shuttle" than is typical. Usually when we talk about the "space shuttle," that phrase refers to NASA's Space Transport System (STS), which which was retired in 2011. Since the word "shuttle" really just means to go out and come back, I suppose it could apply to any space craft that isintended to return to Earth. It isn't what we usually mean when someone talks about a shuttle though, and it makes me kind of uneasy that those publications are using that word in that way. $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Dec 11, 2017 at 22:57

4 Answers 4


Astronautical engineer here, welcome to the small satellite community!

Firstly, it's important to recognize that the FCC tightly regulates the radio spectra available to satellites and amateur broadcasters, so before even considering how to launch your spacecraft, you should make sure your payload is legal. The FCC tables on frequency allocations can be found here; you'll be interested in all the bands with allocations to "Amateur-Satellite". Note that some of these frequency allocations are not bi-directional, so double check in the detailed notes on each band to make sure you understand the limits.

As to launch costs, there are a couple of launch service providers who offer payload space for small satellites to ride alongside a much larger payload, which they term "secondary payloads". A service provider can typically squeeze half a dozen or more secondary payloads into a launch, which means these smaller payloads only pay a fraction of the overall cost of the launch.

Launch providers generally don't make their costs available to the public, for competitive reasons; you'd usually have to contact one to request a quote, and the cost may vary depending on the launch window, vehicle, and how many other secondary payloads will be sharing the launch. For a ballpark estimate, you can use the table provided here.

It sounds like your spacecraft will be relatively small (what we would term a "nano satellite"), so you'd probably be most interested in everything to the left of the 50kg bracket in their table, which lists launch prices from 295 thousand dollars up to about 2 million. If your satellite is really small (e.g. a 1U CubeSat), the price may be even lower. As I said, your actual price will vary, so you really need to request a quote from a launch provider to get accurate numbers for your specific case.

Most launch providers also place a number of requirements on their customers, to ensure that they won't pose a safety risk to the launch vehicle or other payloads. Your satellite will have to meet certain structural criteria for how it mates with the launch vehicle (e.g. via lightband adapter, CubeSat Pod, etc.), the location of its center of mass, and vibration frequency response, which are usually spelled out in the launch vehicle technical data manual, such as this one for the Minotaur IV. Fortunately some of these requirements are less severe for secondary payloads, due to their small size, but you'll still need to do some level of analysis and/or testing to satisfy the launch provider that your design meets the requirements.

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    $\begingroup$ True, they won't shoot down your satellite, but they can find you on the ground and slap you with fines and/or jail time. fcc.gov/consumers/guides/unauthorized-radio-operation $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Dec 10, 2017 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeB how does the FCC have jurisdiction over space? $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Dec 11, 2017 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ @fectin Radio frequency allocations are defined by the United Nations International Telecommunications Union Radio Regulations treaty. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITU_Radio_Regulations) The FCC is delegated authority by this treaty to regulate civilian radio broadcasting for the United States, including for spacecraft. The NTIA is delegated this same authority for US Government agencies. $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Dec 11, 2017 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't live in the United States, but you do live in one of the signatory countries to the ITU-RR treaty, you'll still be bound to the same allocation requirements, they'll just be enforced by whatever telecommunications regulatory agency your country uses. $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Dec 11, 2017 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ I was thinking those prices were shockingly attainable until I noted the note at the bottom: Pricing in thousands (USD) $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2017 at 18:21

The Space Shuttle retired in 2011, and no amateur launch has ever reached orbit, but there are plenty of opportunities to piggyback on commercial and government launch services. Mostly this is arranged through a broker, for example Spaceflight Industries. A rough order of magnitude estimate for price would be US$50,000 / kg.


A TV show addressed this some years ago. What appears to be the full video on You-tube: (Link gone--tv show "How Hard Can It Be", Episode 3 -- "Homemade Rocket".) Owner's website with a few minutes of video: https://www.natgeotv.com/ca/how-hard-can-it-be/videos

This was a TV production, they obviously have a budget well above what most amateurs could bring to it. They quickly concluded that reaching orbit was out of the question within the scope of what they could do, so they set out to do what they could.

Their rocket--which cost thousands of dollars to build--made it something like 10 miles up. That's only a drop in the bucket compared to what it would take to reach orbit. (Simple illustration: To push a rocket to the edge of space costs you about 1,400 m/s minimum. To put a rocket in low orbit costs you about 9,800 m/s minimum.)

Also, by the time you're talking 9,800 m/s the rocket equation has become brutal. Good solid motors have an ISP of about 250, vs 450 for LH2/LO2. This means that pushing something to orbit with solids means a rocket several times bigger than with the good stuff--and note how big even the smallest orbital rockets are.

There are also major permission issues involved in such a launch. The normal safety laws of amateur rocketry can't handle an orbital launch, thus you have to convince the FAA and the government that your systems are safe even when they don't function as intended. You'll also need FCC licenses to talk to your rocket and a blaster's license for the range safety system. (Yes, there are high explosives on every rocket that goes up. The charges are fairly small as they are only meant to burst it, drag & the fuel finish the job. Watch the video of the failed SpaceX CRS-7 mission--the control computer detected a catastrophic failure and destroyed it. Likewise, the first Ariane 5 launch, the rocket tips, when it starts to break up the computer destroys it. Manned missions are not exempt--look hard enough and you can find video of the commanded destruct of the boosters in the Challenger disaster. This is hard to find as most of the video focuses on the disaster itself. The solid boosters were still burning after the big boom, though, but no longer had a guidance system. Note how their flight terminates in a big puff--that was a destruct order.)

Since the comment mentioned abbreviations: ISP: Specific impulse. (It's usually written as Impulse [sub]SPecific[/sub], hence the order of the letters.) This is a measure of a rocket's performance, the bigger the number the better. While the ratio is linear the ratio between performance and size is exponential.

LH2: Liquid hydrogen. (Hydrogen exists as a molecule of two hydrogen atoms, hence the 2.) Energetic but very nasty to deal with, enough so that it's not unusual to see a lesser fuel used in the first stage where performance isn't so critical.

LO2: Liquid oxygen. Again, a molecule of two atoms. Note that this is also sometimes labeled LOX. Not nearly so nasty as LH2 but still it needs some pretty careful handling because it can make little fires very big very quickly.

  • $\begingroup$ can you please re-fresh the link? I am curious to watch it $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ @GENIVI-LEARNER How would I refresh it? Someone posted copyrighted material, it's no surprise it's gone. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ ok. do you have any reference such as show name? Anything that I could use to search and locate the video? $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @GENIVI-LEARNER imdb.com/title/tt2178295/?ref_=ttep_ep3 $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ perfect thanks! $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 22:50

Obligatory XKCD What If.

Getting to orbit is not a a problem of just vertical distance. You also need to go really fast to stay in orbit (I assume you want your satellite to stay up there).

First, you have to go up about 100 KM, then you need to reach a speed of 8 km/s to stay in orbit. That's going to require a massive rocket.

Randal compared the orbital speed of ISS to a rifle bullet:

The ISS moves so quickly that if you fired a rifle bullet from one end of a football field, the International Space Station could cross the length of the field before the bullet traveled 10 yards.

  • $\begingroup$ Why don't they just life a payload w/rocket with a balloon, and once it reaches peak altitude, fire the rocket (near) horizontal? $\endgroup$
    – Chloe
    Dec 10, 2017 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Chloe: That's a concept that has been considered. However, exactly as Nelson's answer notes, the hard part of getting to orbit isn't getting high enough, it's going fast enough sideways. A balloon will only help you get higher, it won't help you go faster. Sure, you'll save some fuel by starting at the top of the atmosphere rather than at the bottom, but not all that much. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2017 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ @IlmariKaronen: It's also highly illegal. Some anti-ICBM law disallows dropping powered flight objects from balloons. I have no idea what they were thinking when they wrote it. That is not an effective weapon compared to a silo. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Dec 10, 2017 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua Are you sure about that? The Wikipedia page that Ilmari links to lists several companies and universities that are working on this stuff at the moment. That would seem rather pointless if the idea was banned by international treaties, since it seems unlikely that Russia and the US are going to agree to change anything in the near future. $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2017 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: I'm also sure it doesn't bind any other countries besides US and Russia. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Dec 11, 2017 at 22:00

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