Winter 2008 Issue

Cansat: Hands-On Experience
Learning about Satellites

In this article KD4HBO expands on an idea that Bob Twiggs, KB6QMD,
first thought of in the 1990s, that of recycling soda cans for use
in space exploration educational projects.

By Ivan Galysh, KD4HBO
Stensat Group LLC

The electronics inside one of the cansats.

Prof. Robert Twiggs, KE6QMD, of Stanford University, developed the concept of cansat in the late 1990s. The purpose of cansat was to allow students to experience a space program on a small, affordable scale. A cansat is a simulation of a satellite the size of a soda can. Students build a satellite that can fit into a soda can and perform some mission. The cansat is launched in a high-power rocket to an altitude such as 12,000 feet and is ejected from the rocket. The cansat floats back to Earth for several minutes, performing its mission and transmitting telemetry or accepting commands to perform specific tasks.

The first cansat launch occurred in 1999 in Black Rock, Nevada. Over time, the cansat concept has spread around the world. It has been used as a stepping stone to the cubesat satellite, which was also developed by Prof. Twiggs. Cubesats are picosatellites that can be as small as a 4-inch cube weighing a kilogram.


ARLISS, A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites, is where cansat started. Every year since 1999, Stanford University, led by Prof. Twiggs and the AeroPac rocket club, has launched cansats up to 12,000 feet for students from various schools, including some in Japan. The launches are held in Black Rock.
The ARLISS launch has been attended by high school and university teams. The event is not a contest, but rather an event providing students with the opportunity to have their cansats launched to high altitudes. The students design and build their cansats to perform a mission they define themselves. The Aeropac rocket club provides the rockets and launch support.

Cansat designs have ranged from simple temperature-measuring devices to robotic types.

National Cansat Competition

In 2004 a university-level cansat competition was created. The competition organizational committee consisted of the American Astronautical Society, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Naval Research Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Each year the committee defines a mission for the competition, with the current theme being planetary exploration. Universities around the country apply to be in the competition and start designing their cansats. The teams are required to hold preliminary design reviews and critical design reviews with the committee members, usually by teleconference. In June the teams go to Black Rock and launch their cansats on rockets provided by the competition committee.
The first national competition was held in June 2005 near El Centro, California. Seven teams applied and only three teams came to the launch. The mission was to measure atmospheric pressure and temperature, and to measure the distance and direction from the landing site to the launch site. None of the teams recovered their cansats, which were launched to 5000 feet.

The second launch was held in The Plains, Virginia with the same mission but a lower deployment altitude of 2000 feet. For this event 13 teams applied and seven made it to the launch. Two teams successfully completed the mission.

In 2007, the third competition was held in Amarillo, Texas. The mission was changed to require more mechanical and aerospace engineering efforts and less electronics. The cansats had to land and be in an upright position. Twenty-six teams applied and 15 teams attended the competition, including a team from Hawaii. One team successfully completed the mission, with a second team almost completing it. Vegetation was an issue.

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