We’re building and flying an actual Earth-orbiting satellite. It’s a TubeSat from Interorbital Systems and will fly in late 2011.
The primary mission is to test one of 3 satellite thrusters on the drawing boards: an ion engine, a low thrust field effect engine, and a plasma-based magnetorquer. The ion engine has the best chance of good thrust but is the most difficult to build and power. Special techniques are needed to build something not yet tried, exploiting quantum tunneling and laser effects on the Debye Sheath. A field effect engine is theoretically possible but thrust is so low, no one has tried it yet in space. We’re hoping to use the power of modern GPUs to get the absolute best thrust through FDTD simulation and genetic algorithms. The last idea isn’t technically an engine per se. It uses RF waves to push electrons around and around a loop of plasma. The resulting current is exceedingly large and interacts strongly with Earth’s magnetic field to provide strong torque for attitude control.
The next milestone is a satellite kit kickoff party, complete with a cake in the shape of an astronaut (red velvet cake – more interesting to cut into). There might even be tin foil hats.