With Raspberry Pis and 3D printing all the rage, ambitious DIY projects have never been more achievable. However, when it comes to space experiments, it’s still a professionals-only game. Start up company Infinity Aerospace out of the NASA Ames Research Center at Mountain View, California, wants to change that with Ardulab: an open source experiment package based on the Arduino processor that provides students and others with the ability to send experiments into space for under US$5,000.

The developers compare the Ardulab to the move from mainframe computers to DIY personal computers in the 1970s that put innovation in the hands of hobbyists. It’s meant to solve the problem of how to carry out microgravity experiments on a tight budget. Piggyback experiment canisters have been around since the early Space Shuttle missions, but they’ve been either very simple or required complex development, and neither were inexpensive. This is especially a barrier for students.

Ardulab was designed by a group that includes NASA’s Singularity University, Stanford’s Aerospace Engineering program, XCOR Aerospace, Atmel, Silicon Valley Space Center, and NanoRacks. Aimed at students and educators, Ardulab is an open source approach to putting experiments into space for under $5,000 and in less than 9 months.

The Ardulab package conforms to NASA standards and is intended for use on the International Space Station (ISS), though it can also be used on suborbital flights aboard Virgin Galactic, or the XCOR Lynx. It’s designed to work with experiment carriers called NanoRacks, which carry payloads that conform to the standard dimensions of a cubesat. In other words, a cube or built up in cubes that are 10 cm on a side. The NanoRack can also provide power and a data link using a USB jack.

Ardulab comes as a kit packed inside of a high-impact Pelican case for protection while shipping the finished product. Inside is a polycarbonate box that is either square or oblong, though conforming to cubesat standards. These boxes have a number of places for securing experiments and the needed hardware is also included. In addition, there is the Ardulab microcontroller based on the Arduino platform, and a USB cable. The system is described as “plug and play,” and can store up to 32 GB of data on a Micro SD card.

The company describes using Ardulab as a simple matter of putting your experiment inside the container, programming the microcontroller, and sending it off to Infinity Aerospace, after which it will be sent into space with 9 months. You then receive video and data output from the experiment.

The first Ardulab is currently aboard the Cygnus space freighter, which is awaiting a delayed docking with the ISS due to a malfunction in the unmanned craft’s navigational computer. The developers say that in the future they plan to increase the systems capabilities for real-time data, video and control as well as bringing down the costs. In addition, NASA’s Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is funding a student competition to develop microgravity experiments with ArduLab and send them to the ISS.

In the video below, space researcher Mark Hoerber comments on Ardulab.

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