CubeSats Mission 1: Rapid Prototyping

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What are the functions of small satellites, and how are they designed?

We will begin to explore how small satellites give insight about the mysteries of deep space and our own changing planet. In this mission, we will work together to rapidly prototype cubesats (or cube satellites) to be launched on a tethered balloon for collecting infrared images and creating data-inspired art!

✋ Multi-Session 🥰 Ages 8+ 🕐 1–1.5 Hours 👩‍👦‍👦 up to 20 Participants 🍎 1–2 Facilitators 🎨 Craft Materials


When preparing to facilitate a creative learning activity, it is important to think carefully about how you're setting up the learning environment.

Making Example Satellites

One very important component of this set-up is populating your space with a variety of example projects. A good example is thoughtfully designed to inspire your patrons, spark their curiosity, and support them in getting started with the activity.

In our experience, this workshop, without thoughtful preparation, can result in a lot of satellite designs that look identical. As the facilitator, plan to create several examples ahead of time that demonstrate a wide variety of potential design outcomes using the provided materials. While these workshops are based on the design of cube satellites, it is OK to deviate from this form factor! It can be helpful to build at least one 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter cube to demonstrate the size of a standard 1U cubesat, as well.

In addition, be sure that your examples are not overly polished—rather focus on 'under-engineering' the internal structure of the satellite—generate a design that perhaps is too weak (cannot support a lot of weight) or too heavy (not easily lifted by a balloon, or at all), and offers patrons an opportunity to expand on the foundation you've provided.

Setting up the Workspace

This activity is intended to encourage patrons to work together and communicate throughout the design and build process. If possible, set up your workshop space to allow for collaboration!

In our various playtests, we found that arranging tables for groups of 5-6 worked best. Place a set of building supplies on each table. You can also gather books from your library's collection (ones with lots of images!) on aerospace engineering or space exploration to place throughout the space—these can spark inspiration!

Supply Kit

Cardboard (can be leftover or recycled)
Construction & printer paper
Tape (a variety, including duct & masking in various colors and sizes)
Paper cups
Miscellaneous craft materials (pompoms, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners/chenille stems, etc)
Rubber bands, in various sizes and colors
Zip ties
Hook & loop closures (Velcro)
Optional: Digital scale
Optional: Foam sheets
Optional: Box cutters
Optional: Hot glue gun
Optional: Books on space exploration or aerospace engineering

Workshop Flow

Introductory Activity: What are satellites, and how are they used?

Suggested Timing: 15 minutes

One 'U' (or unit) is the smallest building block of a cubesat. However, these Us can be stacked to create larger satellites with more room for internal payloads.
One 'U' (or unit) is the smallest building block of a cubesat. However, these Us can be stacked to create larger satellites with more room for internal payloads.

Before digging into the satellite build, begin the workshop with a short, 15-minute discussion to provide some context for the activity.

Why do we care about satellites, anyway?

We know that satellites are critical for every-day life—enabling tools including cell phones; cable television; and weather monitoring technologies—but there are lesser known uses of satellites! For example, satellites are used to image, and even predict, natural disasters; they are used to sense into deep space, to identify and characterize new planets in other galaxies; they are used to quantify trace elements in the ocean surface, and even the temperature of sea-ice; and they are even used for tracking deforestation, urbanization, and the spread disease!

Start with having small groups brainstorm the ways that satellites are used, and the ways that they encounter satellite technology everyday life.

After five minutes or so, bring the group back together and have patrons share out what they discussed. Ask, What uses of satellites were most popular? Were any missed?

You can then dive into a description of cube satellites, or cubesats!

Cubesats are a class of satellites that are composed of 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter units (or "U"s). Most cubesats are just 1U, but can 'stack' to create 3U or 6U satellites. CubeSats differ from regular satellites for several reasons: they are significantly smaller (standard satellites are the size of a school bus!), and therefore far cheaper, as well as easier to transport; they last a shorter amount of time in-orbit (around two years); and they are built using commercially available, off-the-shelf components, making them more accessible by non-experts to build.

Cubesats have emerged as critical tools for aerospace engineering because of their lower-cost, and potential to be used as experimental spacecrafts. While they may appear simple, though, they are still tricky to put together, and require large, collaborative teams to build. Cubesats need to be small, but structurally rigorous—they need to be constructed in a way that protects the internal payload inside from harsh, outer-space environments, and in a way that allows them to survive the rocky journey into space!

The prototyping activity will prompt patrons to achieve this balance between lightweight yet strong satellite design. Time to build!

Workshop Musings

  • What are satellites? What are they used for?
  • Why are we interested in exploring outer space? In exploring Earth?
  • What are cubesats?
  • What are some advantages of cubesats over traditional satellites?
  • How are cubesats built?


For more information on cubesats, Earth exploration, climate science, and remote sensing, you can review our PLIX CubeSats Facilitator Resources:

Introduction to CubeSats and Space Exploration
CubeSats Reading List
CubeSats Video Resources

Main Activity: Rapid Prototyping

Suggested Timing: 45 minutes

Cambridge Public Library
Cambridge Public Library

Now, patrons can design and build their very own cubesat. Patrons can work by themselves, but working in pairs or small groups brings together many ideas for the design process. This activity also works well for engaging families and older patrons. There aren't any true "constraints" for the build, but encourage patrons to think about a few key factors:

  • Because they have not selected payloads yet (the next workshop), make sure that patrons have enough space to incorporate one later on: ensure that the satellites are, at minimum, ~1U.
  • Achieving a light-weight design will allow for more height in the balloon launch process. If there is not enough wind, cubesats/payloads that are too heavy may not lift off the ground. (With this in mind, it can be helpful to have a digital scale on-hand.)
  • Deploying your satellite on the balloon will put its strength to the test. Wind strength picks up even just a few feet off the ground: patrons will want to ensure that their satellite will not be damaged in the launch process, so structural integrity is critical. Designing a structurally sound satellite will also help keep the payload safe!
  • Incorporate a feature (a hole; a 'hook') that will allow a carabiner to easily clip onto your satellite design (for eventual attachment to the balloon)—zip ties work quite well for this!
  • Remember: depending on what payloads you will use (the second workshop in this series), the designs of the cubesats can be different. While this activity centers on ‘cube’ satellites, patrons should feel free to explore with other shapes. They can even create multiple different satellites to see how they compare (if there is enough time and materials).

As facilitator, circulate throughout the room and ask how patrons have arrived at their design. How large are they building their satellite? Is their initial focus on structure? Size? Weight? Design?

Come-Together: Prototypes Share-Out

Suggested Timing: 25 minutes (15min for share-out, 10min for cleanup)

For the come-together activity, complete a gallery walk to discuss the designs. In a gallery walk, activity participants walk around the space in a large group, taking turns to present their designs. Encourage patrons to reflect on:

  • How they came to their design
  • What materials they used and why
  • How their design evolved over the course of the prototyping activity

Learn more about the art of the example in our PLIX Guide to Making Activity Examples.

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