Keynote Michael Johnson: Kickstarting the Personal Space Age

published Oct 30, 2014, last modified Nov 16, 2014

Keynote by Michael Johnson at the Plone Conference 2014 in Bristol.

I am the founder of

I am a physicist. Working in meteorology and ocean ventilation models and tools. Voyager and ROSAT analysis. Att Imperial College. Software developer, computer scientist. Aerospace. Co created the KickSat project.

Founded in 2010, operations in China, Isle of Man, UK, US.

Space is bug and relatively unexplored. Missions are expensive and infrequent, funding is tight, missions are risk averse, it is scary to try really new ideas, processors are often ten years old because we know all the bugs there.

Goal: before I retire (say in the next 25 years) I want to send a spacecraft to orbit and/or land on the surface of 'every' body in the solar system. Every is too much, but maybe one million objects?

We need a pocket space craft, that individuals can buy. Personal space age: everyone can get involved.

We want to explore. Consumer projects: how are you going to support that, on that scale? We want instant gratification for people, but it normally takes years to get something up in the air. Work together.

Help different communities involved. If you do something good for the science community, your project may be able to get on board a mission to Mars. Lots of legal hurdles, insurance. Small space crafts, but big problems.

Video games are a good metric for this. People are prepared to pay 50 dollars for that. Lots of challenges there.

What helps, is open source. An Open Source Space System is being worked on. This is done by individuals in their spare time, but also by big names in space. Bring the International CubeSat Consortium in the mix.

Using open source actually helps against some of the legal hurdles, making you exempt from them.

The CubeSat standard defines a standard space craft. One unit is en by ten by ten centimeter, using 1 Watt, 1 kilogram. You can combine a few. About 50k dollar to launch one. That was started ten years ago. About 70 made in that time, and about 70 in the last six months. So it is being picked up. Much much more planned for next year. Launched from the international space station.

How is it possible? Moore's law. A KickSat, much smaller than CubeSat, already has more computer power than Voyager had, so don't knock it.

Standard 3 unit CubeSat launch is available today. Not tied to any launch vehicle or nation. We need to get it close to where we want to get (moon, planet). Then we deploy and do whatever we want (except introducing bacteria, so there are rules).

Pocket Spacecraft prototype, 32-96 millimeter diameter, less than 50 micrometer thick, 10-100 milligram, 5-100 MIPS, up to 100 GB storage, optical communications. Can be manually produced.

Long term goal: print space craft in space. Design your space craft, send the instructions in the direction of the printer in orbit around Mars, wait 20 to 40 minutes depending on time of year, and you can launch your space craft.

There is now Open Mission Control software, and Pocket Mission Control for your Android.

You need to be able to talk to these space craft, via ground stations. We can do that amateur radio based. See

But with a credit card and some convincing you can rent NASA communications by the hour and use the same stuff that still talks to Voyager, at 80 light hours distance.

But there also is the LOFAR network, for radio astronomy, which you could use to pinpoint your space craft. Lots of data, several Peta byte for 15 minutes. Expensive, but prices will drop: Moore's law again. There is an awful lot to do, but that is fine.

Where do you want to explore today?

Standards and info:

Spacecraft parts:


50 percent of CubeSats fail. But 50 percent of large space projects fail as well. Interesting, isn't it?

Space junk? We are responsible about that, making sure we do no harm, otherwise we may no longer be allowed in space.

Watch the video of this talk.