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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Introduction to CubeSats

Hello! Today on Embrace Space, we are going to take an introductory look at CubeSats! These small satellites have been proving themselves very useful lately and I wanted to take the time to bring you up-to-speed on what a CubeSat is and why they are important. I will soon be working quite closely with CubeSats and before I tell you about some interesting projects, I wanted to review the basics.

For anyone already heavily involved in this industry, this review may be unnecessary, but for the rest of you, I think you'll find this useful and a great jumping point to learning about some very interesting projects coming up!

What do you know about satellites? When you hear the word, what do you imagine? I believe that most people would imagine a large, box-like structure, with a big satellite dish on it, as seen in my previous post.

This type of satellite configuration is indeed the most common, as there are now fleets of telecommunications and GPS satellites, with masses exceeding several 1000 kg. These satellites often house all the equipment mentioned in my previous post, and are responsible for sending/receiving a lot of data. 

Many of us enjoying TV, Internet, GPS, and mobile phone services may think about satellites often and be thankful they exist, and curse the heavens when there aren't enough around to give you a good signal. 

In the beginning, technological limitations necessitated large, massive satellites. Even today, larger satellites are often more powerful and capable. However, larger, more powerful satellites require a great deal of time and investment. This investment limits the variety of institutions that can develop such satellites.   

As technology has miniaturized, there have been efforts to miniaturize satellites. In 1999, professors at California's Polytechnic State University and Stanford developed the CubeSat model. As succinctly written in the article I just provided, the CubeSat model was developed promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacturing, and testing of small satellites for low-Earth orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research and explore new space technologies.
So, what's a CubeSat? Well, first off, you guessed it, a CubeSat is a satellite consisting of cubes, each cube, or unit "U", having dimensions of 10 by 10 by 10 cm, and a mass less than 1.33 kg. These cubes can be combined, (so a 3U CubeSat is 30 x 10 x 10cm) providing a highly modular alternative to satellite design. 

Contrary to the large model, CubeSats can be developed using less expensive, more accessible commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, meaning that anyone with some extra money and access to an electronics surplus store could buy what they need. In addition, since launch costs are often dependent on the mass of the satellite to be launched, launch costs for CubeSats are significantly reduced.

Since the development of the model, CubeSats have been developed all over the world by universities, hobbyists, and research facilities. The lower development time and cost for CubeSats has allowed research into new technologies and techniques to flourish. 

CubeSat developers were able to experiment with their designs, exploring innovations such as formation flying and smartphone satellites.

The CubeSat model allowed several organizations to develop projects in parallel, and the economies of scale and scope reduced costs and risks further.

Simply put, economy of scale implies that the more of a product that is developed, the less expensive it is to develop more subsequent products, and economy of scope implies that it is easier and less expensive to make products similar to those your company is already producing.

The CubeSat model has allowed a standardized approach to satellite design and manufacturing, and this standard has allowed people to develop many CubeSats, and their components, at the same time, making it easier and less expensive to do so. Thus, the CubeSat model has begun to make a lot more business sense.

What can you do with a CubeSat?
Since the year 2000, over 300 CubeSats have been launched, some from the International Space Station. Companies such as Clyde Space, and Nanoracks, as well as CubeSatShop, have been developing components, research facilities, customer-defined satellite solutions, allowing for more access to space. 

At this point, the use of CubeSats in low-Earth orbit has well been established. They have been used for imaging the Earth, studying the atmosphere, and for trying new technologies. In the beginning, it was thought that their generally lower capability would limit CubeSats to staying close to Earth, but as technology has developed, so too have the possibilities. Now, the shift has begun in investigating the use of CubeSats beyond low-Earth orbit, even as far as Mars and deep-space asteroids

Personally, I have always been interested by the potential of modular spacecraft. An early Mars mission design of mine included a large "mothership" with smaller, detachable "shuttlecraft". Interestingly enough, while I was interviewing for a position with Clyde Space, a world-leader in CubeSat component design, I was also accepted into the University of Glasgow's PhD program investigating the potential for CubeSats beyond low-Earth orbit. At this point in my life, the employment opportunity makes the most sense and I am excited to begin my career learning all that I can and making a difference in this industry!

CubeSats offer a unique alternative and are worth exploring. The advantages explored in this post may provide companies, universities, and government agencies with greater potential for exploring space and for driving business both on Earth and beyond. In later posts, I hope to explore some of the new developments in the CubeSat industry, including one idea to offer worldwide, free, easily-accessible internet!

Thanks for reading! I hope to further explore the opportunities with you in later posts.

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