Date: September 13, 2010

Title: How Much Damage Can You Do from (pico-)Space?


Podcaster: Sandy Antunes

Organization: Dr. Alex “Sandy” Antunes, Project Calliope LLC –

Description: When people find out I’m launching a 200 gram picosatellite, some get stressed about its re-entry, about space pollution, or–worst of all– about what could happen if any individual can put stuff into space. So let’s put on our super-villain hats and think– just how much damage can 200 grams deliver from orbit?

Bio: Sandy looks at the science and the people in today’s 9-5 pro astronomy world. Born in the heart of a dying star (as we were all), Alex draws from his research, writing, and game design work to bring you the joy of science twice a week at Science20/skyday– and is launching a science/music satellite via

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Liz Fracek.



How much damage can you do from space?

Hi, I’m Dr. Sandy Antunes, a professional scientist and amateur engineer and I am building a satellite in my basement. It’s called PROJECT CALLIOPE and it’s a peaceful mission to convert the ionosphere to music.

But, in part from the SpaceUpDC conference where I gave an Ignite talk, today, I’m going to tell you how I’m going to kill you all. Mwah ha ha ha. (That was supposed to be a supervillain laugh).

I’ve always been aware that some people fear exploring space. Their incorrect arguments boil down to: They argue that it costs too much money. That worry things might blow up. And they say that it doesn’t feed starving infants on earth. Even though, through our better weather forecasting, actually, it does. And yet I was surprised to find that people feared my little pico-satellite. Me! I’m a nice guy! Hence this talk.

Why have people told me they fear my little 200 gram PROJECT CALLIOPE pico-satellite? Despite the fact that orbits are like slot car tracks, they fear I will crash it into other satellites, just like Galaxy 15. One person even noted I might knock out their cell phone and satellite TV satellites, oh no! Despite my satellite burning up entirely within 3 months of launch, they tell me I am polluting space and creating a world like the polluted orbits from the movie Wall-E.

A few fear I’ll hit them on reentry– that my tiny satellite won’t burn up entirely and will create a crater on or near them! And finally, some fear that I might send up something deliberately nasty.

Now, deliberately nasty, that’s something I can wrap my mind around. So it’s time for all of us to put on our evil hats. Time to get your super villain on. Let’s think just how much damage can we do with a pico-satellite from orbit?

Okay, the only problem is, a picosatellite has only a 200 gram payload. And they only orbit for around 12 weeks in Low Earth Orbit before totally burning up on reentry. Now, how much is 200 grams? It’s about the weight of a Nintendo DS, the weight of a handheld game system. It’s about the same size, too.

So the first thing we’re going to have to do is make our death-dealing satellite BIGGER, and that means tentacles, of course, just like any good anime! We’re going to need big scary space tentacles! We’ll add
fishing line– monofilament– with little weights attached to the end. Okay, fishing line is really light so we can put a lot on, like a paper bag full. We’ll use a spring to kick them out when it’s in orbit, and then the spin of satellite will spread out the little weighted fishing line when we put weights on the end just like a
Babylon-5 star fury, and now… Our little tiny satellite isn’t so tiny! It’s… slightly less tiny! Fear us!

Now we’ll need to kick it to a more eccentric orbit, a less circular shaped orbit, so we’ll have to stick a rocket on it to increase the odds of intersecting something before we die. So we’ll take a normal model rocket engine, like an Estes ‘D’ booster, we’ll put some oxygen source in there, don’t ask me how, and that’ll make its orbit last, well less long, because the eccentric orbit will have more drag, but it does mean we will intersect another satellite so we have more of a chance of dealing death. At least, it means we _might_ intersect with another satellite. Okay, it means we really don’t have much of a chance of intersecting another satellite, but it’s better than our chance was when we’re in our little slot-like orbit.

Now, we’ll have to disguise the rocket to get past the inspection by the launch company, InterOrbital, so we’ll paint it silver and fasten it to a circuit board so it looks like a capacitor. That’ll fool them– it’s not like they’re rocket scientists. Uh, moving along.

And now, ironically, we’ll pray, we pray that our short-lifetime fishline wielding satellite hits something before its premature death.

And the conclusion from this? Well, first, I suck as a super-villain.

But you can also invert this. WHY would we want to do this sort of thing?

It’s almost a truism of rocket science that the hard things are fun, but not-fun things are hard. And worse, it’s hard to make things work right in space, and it’s even harder to make it go wrong exactly the way you want.

Especially when you add companies like InterOrbital, who are people with a clue, and they inspect and test everything before you launch.

So my challenge to you– maybe you can do better? Can you do 200 grams of secret payload doom?

Me, I’m happy as the bohemian boutique satellite builder, making music from space. Then again, … Maybe if the music was really awful… ???

I’m Dr. Sandy Antunes and I hope you enjoy Project Calliope, launching in 2011. You can read about my REAL satellite work at

And I’ll see you next month on 365 Days of Astronomy.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.