Send your love a personal satellite

Forget flowers. A Japanese company is offering people the chance to say "I love you" with a personal satellite.

Astro Research Corporation will launch a small satellite with a payload of your choice and then track it for you as it orbits the earth. The compact satellite, which measures 25 centimetres along each side of its cubic body, has a 10cm box for a cargo of the customer's choice.

That could include letters, photos, rings and other sentimental items, said Ted Mitsuteru Sugiki, president of Astro Research. "We would like to introduce space to anyone who would like to use it," he said.

The MySat-1 satellites will take up a low-earth orbit (LEO) between 600 and 800 kilometres above the earth. That means their position in the sky will constantly change relative to the ground. Although they won't be visible to the naked eye, a beacon on each satellite will allow Astro Research to track them and let customers know where they are and at what time they'll pass overhead each day.

Each satellite will be guaranteed to stay in orbit for two to three years, but Astro Research estimates the actual lifetime will be closer to 20 or 30 years. When they reach the end of their life the satellites will be guided down into the earth's atmosphere to burn up so they don't become space junk, said Sugiki. That also means you'll never get a chance to retrieve whatever is placed in the box.

Launching your feelings of love into orbit doesn't come cheap. The price for the satellite and launch is $1.1 million (YEN 100 million), which includes a model of the satellite and a trip to the Russian launch site. For the same price, the object of your desire could be treated to around 3000 top-notch romantic dinners in Tokyo, Melbourne or Sydney.

Expensive as that may seem it is a bargain for a satellite launch, which typically costs tens of millions of dollars. The low price tag stems partly from the satellite being built using off-the-shelf components. Launch costs are cut because the satellites can piggyback alongside a larger satellite in a rocket.

Astro Research hopes to make the low-cost satellites available for more serious purposes. Alongside MySat-1, the company has a line-up of five satellites that can be used by researchers to conduct experiments in space.

The smallest is based on the MySat-1 craft and is called ARCSat-X. It's a more complicated model with communications gear and motors to keep it stabilized in space.

"Lots of researchers at universities don't have a big budget for putting things into space. So this is very affordable at $1 million compared to $50 million [for a conventional launch]." It will also be much faster, Sugiki said. It will take between one and two years from initial preparation to launch, compared to between five years and seven years for the Japanese space program.

"We've been talking to a couple of research institutes and part of JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)," Sugiki said. Institutes are keen because the MySat costs typically fit within their small budgets, he said.

Of the four other satellites, two are based on a Ukranian design and two on a Chinese design, Sugiki said. These can carry heavier and bulkier payloads and are intended for larger projects. The company is looking at using a Russian rocket for launch.

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