What is a CubeSat?
A CubeSat—short for “cube satellite”—is a miniaturized satellite used for scientific research. They were originally developed by researchers from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University in the late 1990s in order to provide students a hands-on medium for education in space exploration and characterization. In general, CubeSats are assembled using cost-effective, commercially available off-the-shelf components, thus they may be constructed by dedicated space enthusiasts without comprehensive expertise or funding.
While created for academic purposes, the use and development of cubesats has recently proliferated in governmental and industrial settings. For example, for many nations—like Switzerland—cubesats have become the first national satellite of their country. In the United States, NASA has begun to sponsor endeavors utilizing CubeSats: a recent mission - the Lunar Water Assessment, Transport, Evolution, and Resource (Lunar WATER) mission - employed the technology to study the formation, loss, and sequestration of water on the surface of the Moon.
Cubesats, at their smallest, can be a mere 10 cm cube weighing no more than 1.0 kg, made possible by similar electronics miniaturization concepts to those that produced smartphones. However, if a larger spacecraft is required, the CubeSats can be stacked together. They were initially only used in low Earth orbit for applications such as remote sensing or communications. However, recently, a pair of CubeSats has been deployed on a mission flying to Mars, and other CubeSats are being considered for the moon and Jupiter.
What are the benefits of using a CubeSat?
Cubesats largely reduce the cost barrier of traditional satellites—since they’re so small and light, a rocket doesn’t require much fuel to carry them up. Moreover, in most cases they can just share a rocket with a larger satellite, effectively “piggy-backing” on them. This has encouraged governments, industries, and academic institutions in an increasing number of nations to participate in space exploration, and has promoted science education and technology in developing countries.
What are the design challenges of a CubeSat?
The small size means that the electronics are smaller and are therefore more sensitive to radiation. Moreover, they cannot carry large payloads with them. Their low cost also means that they’re not built to last long - maybe a few weeks, months, at most a few years. Another major challenge when operating a cubesat is obtaining useful data on Earth in a reasonable time period (days-months).
For more information on cubesats, Earth exploration, climate science, and remote sensing, you can review the following resources:
- CubeSat 101: Basic Concepts and Processes for First-Time CubeSat Developers by NASA
- Why Space? by Aubrey Hedrick (Charlotte Mecklenberg Library) and Emily St. Germain (Cambridge Public Library)
- Climate Creativity - Infrared Imaging with Small Satellites by Avery Normandin and Devora Najjar, Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative
- Using Weather Balloons and CubeSats to Learn About Space Exploration by Kerri Cahoy, Ph.D., director of MIT’s STAR Lab
You can also check-out our other PLIX CubeSat facilitator resources: