For Max Monn, and three fellow engineering students at Brown University, it all started as just another project in just another undergraduate class back in 2012. The assignment?
"Developing a mission plan for a space related project," explained Monn.
Keep in mind that developing the plan, in this class, was simply a theoretical learning exercise. As such, most students tend to opt for imaginative, pie-in-the sky type proposals like a new space station or a giant telescope. But inspired by a professor, who Monn calls "a self-described aerospace anarchist," Monn and his three friends wanted to "focus small."
"Small satellite, attainable goals. Not some far-fetched type of project," he said.
Their class project was so attainable, in fact, that somewhere along the way they began asking, "what if we followed through, built it, and actually tried to get it launched?"
"The four friends that started it, they all decided, 'OK, we wanna make this into more than a class [project]. Let's start a student group.'" said Hannah Varner, a fellow Brown engineering student at the time.
Varner was in attendance at the meeting when Monn officially proposed the new student group to University officials for approval.
"I was sitting there and going, oh this is kind of cool. I didn’t think I liked space." said Varner. "I didn't really know what satellites did and then, within a month, I was building things for the satellite and actually working on the project."
Varner was not alone. The new Brown Space Engineering group took off.
"Once we saw other people were really psyched about this idea...and they were way more capable than we were as technical engineers... that’s when – I think it was a big surprise to us – that it was like, OK this might actually fly some day," said Monn.
The mission? Make space more directly accessible to all. First, by showing that a working satellite could be built for less than $5,000 (They did it for about $3,700). Second, that it could fly with an interactive payload: A light array designed to flash as bright as the North Star, visible from the ground with the naked eye. They dubbed the four-inch-cubed-sized satellite, EQUiSat: A satellite for the people.
"It’s the hope to see it, it’s not the act of seeing it." said Monn of EQUiSat's blinking light array. "If that gets [someone] to go outside and look up for two minutes, the act of trying to see it is that connection with space that we wanted."
It was under Varner’s leadership in 2014 that the team’s mission was selected by NASA for launch this year. By the time EQUiSat blasted up to the International Space Station this May, almost 300 undergraduate students had worked on it over a course of almost seven years. The current team of 25, and a few dozen alums, including Monn and Varner, all gathered in Wallops, Virginia for the launch.
"It felt like a family reunion, which was really cool." said Monn. "It was an incredibly, emotionally moving experience."
"There were lots of tears," added Varner. "There were lots of bottles of champagne that got popped immediately after launch."
Last Friday, the EQUIsat was finally released into orbit from the ISS. Monn and Varner, who've been dating since their time at Brown, were together on their couch in Cambridge with a live webstream of the deployment up on one laptop, and a group chat going with dozens of other team members going on another.
"Really, the waiting game was 'we’ve gotta see if we hear it,'" said Monn. "Is it gonna turn on or did we just launch a brick into space?"
"One of our friends said, 'Oh yeah, there’s this guy in Japan that gets the first pass of every satellite that gets launched,'" said Varner. "If anyone’s gonna hear it it will be him.
Sure enough, he did. And with a brief radio signal burst, EQUiSat announced its arrival. Currently circling the earth at 17,000 miles per hour, the solar panels are now charging its batteries, and the hope is the lights will start blinking in the next few days.
"Space can be for everyone," said Monn. "You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, you don’t have to be an engineer, you don’t have to be Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. That was the mission of the satellite and I think, even if no one ever sees it we’ve already accomplished that."
Still, the team does hope people will try to see it. And that ham radio operators will listen for it. You can find out exactly when EQUiSat is passing over your local skies on their website. And if you do try, they want to hear from you, too. They built a DIY satellite for the people. Now its up to the people to participate.