Making Space For Everyone With CubeSats

CubeSat rendition by Qtum Foundation

The story of CubeSats started out in a university, where two professors at California Polytechnic University wanted to offer students the chance to build their own miniature satellites. Over time, CubeSats have been adapted into industry, but are rapidly becoming more common in the space sector.

The beginning of CubeSats consisted of a handful of satellites from universities or research applications, until 2013. That year really was a turning point for the CubeSat industry, as the commercial sector embraced CubeSats, with launch numbers increased to dozens per year since then. With an investment of millions of dollars required to launch a regular satellite into orbit, there is no doubt that 2004 launch price of $40,000 made CubeSats an attractive prospective across the industry. To data, more than 50 companies have launched over 1200 CubeSats.

What is a CubeSat?

As the name suggests, a CubeSat is a cube-shaped satellite. It's about the size of a Rubik's cube, with the standard dimensions of "1U" being 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. They are basically miniature satellites, substantially smaller than your classic satellite, and part of the SmallSat family. A CubeSat can be used on its own, or stacked with other ones, with sizes from 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U, depending on the mission requirements.

CubeSat construction from Alén Space

A CubeSat's main structure must host three essential parts:

  • Antenna and radio communication system

  • Power source

  • Computer

Within the CubeSat there can also be cameras, sensors, or scientific payloads, but they are not critical to the mission. Something that has distinguished CubeSats from other satellites, is that they use off-the-shelf circuitry, similar devices used in phones and digital cameras. This was made possible by the miniaturization of electronics, meaning that it is now easier than ever to launch objects into space. Think of it like upgrading from an old school 1960s computer to a compact Microsoft Surface laptop (in terms of shrinking the electronics).

What are they used for?

Initially, CubeSats were used in low Earth orbit for missions such as communications or remote sensing.

Some of their main uses are:

  • Technology demonstration: testing new instruments or materials ahead of integrating them into a complex space mission

  • Science: carrying small science instruments to take measurements in space

  • Education: provide hands-on experience in developing space missions

  • Commercial: various commercial uses such as telecommunications services

Early stage CubeSat in thermal vacuum test at ESA

Some typical scientific applications include:

  • Earth observation: Having access to data to help manage natural resources is paramount to develop sustainable economies and understand human impact on the world

  • Communication: Having infrastructure in space offer remote locations access to land communication, allowing global connectinos

  • Geolocation: Monitoring the movement of critical transportation when there is little contact with land based systems, or even locating ships lost at sea

  • Signal monitoring: Monitoring radio signals to provide connection when there is a natural disaster

  • Scientific applications: Anything from space observation programmes, systems testing, interplanetary missions, biomedical research

"There's big potential in these small packages," said John Baker, the MarCO program manager at JPL. "CubeSats are a new platform for space exploration affordable to more than just government agencies."

Due to their continued success, CubeSats are now moving beyond low-earth orbit, with plans to use them to explore further afield in the universe.

What are the benefits?

There are a number of reasons why CubeSats have become so popular, not just in universities, but also government agencies and commercial groups.

  • Quick to build (less than 2 years!)

  • Cheap (compared to a regular satellite)

  • Simple design (typically used for short missions, so don't need extra tech on board)

  • Standard Technology (off-the-shelf)

  • Sustainable (can burn up in the Earth's atmosphere from low earth orbit)

Since CubeSats have a relatively simple design, and use standard off the shelf technology, this means that they are both quick- and cheap- to build. In the engineering world, if you don't have to manufacture a customisable product, the price goes down substantially. As a result, the engineering and development of CubeSats is much less than a customised small satellite.

Demonstration of a single unit of a CubeSat from ESA

CubeSats have the added benefit of not weighing too much, and have the ability to hitch a ride to space with a larger satellite. Essentially, their weight means that less fuel is required to get CubeSats from the ground to orbit.

New technologies are constantly being invented, such as more accurate components, new methods for observation, or nanotechnology. Although space organisations typically do thorough testing in a lab, or on an aircraft, nothing compares to actually testing in space.

Similar to a swarm of bees, CubeSats can be flown in a constellation network to capture simultaneous instruments across a certain area. Having this ability will allow us to explore more of the space environment from different vantage points, in a similar way that we use various sensors to measure weather.

The slash in price has allowed CubeSats to demonstrate how brand new technology will behave in space, which previously may have been too difficult or expensive to get to space. This allows space research to open up to more people than ever before!

So, are there any drawbacks?

As with most technologies, there are a few drawbacks to CubeSats.

  • Size: limited due to reduced capacity to carry scientific instruments

  • Mission duration: most of them are operational for a period of 3 to 12 months

  • Sustainability: too many launched without considering sustainability

Sample CubeSat constellation from QB50

There are some design challenges with CubeSats as well. The electronics are smaller and are therefore more sensitive to radiation. Because they are small, they cannot carry large payloads with them. Their low cost also means they are generally designed to last only a few weeks, months or years before ceasing operations (and for those in low Earth orbit, falling back into the atmosphere.) 

There are some worries that the increase in CubeSat popularity will lead to an excess of junk in low-Earth orbit, as researchers looking to get their work into space will not consider their long term impact. Due to their size, they are currently relatively difficult to track, and having them in a constellation network means that they don't really have distinguishing features.

Although it is incredible that CubeSats open up space to more individuals than ever before, if they are launched from countries that do not have national regulation in place, this can lead to problems in sustainability down the line.

These are all problems that are being worked on all around the world, and given the great advancements already with CubeSat technology, we may start to see some of these problems being solved.

What happens when they are deployed in space?

When being launched into space, CubeSats are packed away in a container that is opened once in orbit. They are released at the push of a button, which ejects the CubeSat into space. This can also be done from the International Space Station, where there is a designated airlock to launch CubeSats from.

CubeSats are generally launched in polar, low altitude orbits.

Polar orbit is ideal, since satellites travel in circular or elliptical orbits due to striking a balance between two major forces, gravitational and escape pull. Unlike earth, where there is friction, satellites do not have to worry about this factor and can remain in orbit for extended amounts of time.

Being in low earth orbit is ideal for a CubeSat since they are protected from solar and cosmic radiation, on top of the added benefit of optimum conditions for land observation or communications. Travelling at 8 km per second means that it takes about 90 minutes to do a single orbit of earth.

What are some successful CubeSat missions?

Although American research centres has launched a considerable number of CubeSats, there are still various other groups and government agencies that have as well. I'll briefly do an overview of a few ones, but a larger list can be found on Wikipedia.

GOMX-4: Joint European Space Agency, Danish Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organization, and Technical University of Denmark satellite to monitor the arctic and test radio links in space. Eventually hope to demonstrate inter-satellite linking to contribute to satellite constellations.

FUNCube-1: An educational CubeSat launched by AMSAT-UK equipped with a linear transponder for transmitting signals. It carries a materials science experiment, used by school aged students, where they can receive telemetry data and compare to results obtained in the classroom.

CSSWE: Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, under the guidance of professionals at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics built a CubeSat to study space weather. Its main objectives were to observe particles from the sun's solar flares and see how they affect the Earth.

IceCube a NASA mission consisting of a few instruments, where they were tested on their ability to make measurements of the small crystals that make up ice clouds. Since ice clouds have a strong effect on Earth's energy through reflecting or absorbing the Sun's energy, they are key for weather and climate modelling.

MarCO: A Jet Propulsion Laboratory CubeSat mission, short for Mars Cube One, that was the first interplanetary mission to use CubeSats. The primary mission was a Mars flyby, to demonstrate the potential of CubeSats. There were two satellites deployed, and both made their own ways to Mars, with WALL-E sending back some incredible images of Mars, and EVIE performing radio science. They are in orbit around the sun, and only getting further away, predicted to each be a few million miles away from Mars, but were successful as they were able to demonstrate the potential of CubeSat technology.

Who are some CubeSat innovators?

All of the following companies are world leaders in manufacturing spacecraft and offer services and solutions within the Small Satellite market. They all have a particular focus on nanosatellites, which includes CubeSats.

What's in store for CubeSats in the future?

CubeSats appear to have a big future ahead of them, especially following the success of MarCO-1. As they begin to travel beyond the reaches of low-Earth orbit, a vast future full of opportunities awaits CubeSats.

CubeSats will be taking a large role in the Artemis programme, which will see astronauts return to the moon. Before landing humans on the moon, the Lunar Flashlight will investigate the Moon's craters, to look deeper at the composition and size of these areas. This data could help decide where to eventually place a lunar base, since water could be use for rocket fuel and drinking water. CubeSat technology will also be used to map out the potential orbit for the Lunar Gateway's new rectilinear orbit, which is essentially a lunar orbit high over the Moon's poles.

There are varying ways that CubeSats can be used, both in a targeted setting, as well as in large swarms. Christopher Baker, the NASA Small Spacecraft Technology program executive, states, “From a small spacecraft technology perspective, one of the things that I really like doing is finding the mission that someone says can’t be done…then trying to figure out how to do it. Frankly, given the pace of the small spacecraft community, our academic and industry partners, there may well be an underestimation of what we can accomplish in the next five years.”

A future mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, scheduled for the 2030s is looking like it will include CubeSats. Those CubeSats would be used for objectives such as "reconnaissance for future landing sites, gravity fields, magnetic fields, atmospheric and plume science, and radiation measurements."

Some current exciting ongoing ESA missions are QARMAN, as well as SpectroCube, which is due to launch later this year. SpectroCube will travel away from Earth to complete astrobiology and astrochemistry research to assess the impact of space on the building blocks of life. QUARMAN, currently in space and in the middle of its mission, will demonstrate brand new re-entry technologies, with a focus on novel heatshield materials, as well as data during re-entry from relay satellites in low-Earth orbit.

A propulsion system will be a vital component to ensuring CubeSats can explore further than before

To help reduce the chance of CubeSats failing, NASA Goddard developed a new, more resilient type of satellite, Dellingr. Not only does Dellingr boast a more robust design, but also gathers data about the Sun's influence on Earth's upper atmosphere through use of a host of instruments. The investment into Dellingr paves the way for deep space exploration, as more robust and reliable CubeSats will be required.

The future appears to contain small, versatile, and robust technologies, which is a perfect environment for these powerful space-based science machines to thrive. Be sure to keep your eyes out for any news about CubeSats, especially seeing as some of the future images you see from far away planets potentially could be taken from one!

Learn more

If you want to learn more about creating your own CubeSat, feel free to look through this guide from NASA.

The Canadian Space Agency also offer a great little guide to CubeSats

What is something you think would be cool for CubeSats to investigate?


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Mechanical Engineering student. Future space engineer. Writer. Runner. Passionate about getting more women into STEM.

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