How to Build a Satellite Model

Written by paul bragulla
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How to Build a Satellite Model
Learning about satellites can inspire the students to research other space topics. (communications satellite image by Paul Moore from

Satellites are one of the linchpins of modern global civilisation, facilitating communication, meteorology, science and defence. Students are easily excited about topics relating to space and spaceflight, so it may be easier to explain the important role artificial satellites have played in modern history and in maintaining many of the services they are familiar with than with more mundane topics. A 3-D model can be an excellent way to supplement lecture or pictorial class components, giving the students a better handle on the structure, components and functions of a satellite.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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Things you need

  • 4-by-4-by-2-inch block of pine
  • Several small blocks of pine, less than 1-by-2-by-1-inch
  • Table saw or band saw
  • Sandpaper
  • 1/16-inch balsa strip-stock, 48 1/2 inches
  • Hobby knife
  • Epoxy glue
  • Poster board (dark-blue, white)
  • Waxed paper
  • Clear packing tape
  • Acrylic paint (white, black, gold)
  • Enamel clearcoat

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  1. 1

    Cut the "corners" from the 4-by-4-inch block of pine so that it is a hexagon with sides of equal length when viewed from above. Sand the cut faces using several sandpapers of increasingly fine grit until they are approximately as smooth as the uncut faces. This part is the main body of the satellite.

  2. 2

    Cut the balsa strips into eight 4-inch lengths and eight 2-inch lengths with the hobby knife. Sand them with a fine-grit sandpaper to remove any burs or surface roughness.

  3. 3

    Cut the dark-blue poster board into four rectangles, each 2 by 3 1/2 inches in size. These will be the solar panel arrays which power the satellite.

  4. 4

    Use the epoxy to glue the balsa strips to the edges of the solar panels, forming a frame around their edges. Because the long balsa strips are longer than the poster board rectangles, they will extend past the end for half an inch. Each solar panel should have both overlong strips extending from the same end of the panel to form a pair of "legs."

  5. 5

    Lay the body of the satellite model face down on piece of waxed paper. Dab epoxy onto the ends of the "legs" extending from the end of each solar panel and glue them each to one side of the main body with their faces lying on the waxed paper. The solar panels should all be at right angles to each other, forming a cross shape.

  6. 6

    Cut a circle with a 3-inch diameter out of the white poster board. Cut a very thin triangular slice out of it so that it can be folded into a very shallow cone and tape the two cut edges together with clear tape. Glue the base of this communications dish to the centre of the underside of the main body. Use the remaining 1/2-inch of balsa to make a stalk in the centre of the dish by gluing its end to the centre of the cone with the other end pointing straight up.

  7. 7

    Make several small blocks out of pine to represent mission modules and sensors. Glue them to the outside and top of the main body of the satellite.

  8. 8

    Paint the wooden parts of the model gold, careful to keep paint from running onto the solar panels. This represents the gold-foil surfaced insulating blanket that protects satellites from the rapid temperature changes it would experience if it were directly exposed to the space environment. Allow the paint to dry before proceeding.

  9. 9

    Paint the model in a coat of enamel to give it a realistic gloss (both solar panels and thermal blanket surfaces are reflective in real life).

Tips and warnings

  • This set of instructions allows the construction of a very generalised design which might be a representation of a weather or reconnaissance satellite. You can modify it easily to represent more specialised satellites without much difficulty by changing the shape of the main body (making it longer and more cylindrical for a space telescope, for instance) and orientation and number of solar panels.

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