CubeSats are a type of nanosatellite, meaning they weigh anywhere between 1 and 10 kgs. They’re quite versatile and can be used for a number of applications such as weather and climate monitoring, disaster observation to help relief efforts and science experiments. CubeSats exist because of an explosion in technology miniaturisation that’s occurred over the last fifteen years. They also don’t cost that much to get to orbit.
CubeSat sizes are measured in Units—with one Unit equalling 10 x 10 x 10 cm. Typical configurations include 1, 2, 3, 6 and 12 Units.
The first CubeSat was launched by Russia in 2003 but Americans started looking into the idea of them in 1999. Professors at California Polytechnic State University and Sandford University encouraged students to build their own using parts available over the counter at electronics retailers. This way students got hands-on experience and there was a greater chance of their CubeSats flying on future missions because of their small size. NASA launched its first in December 2006.
For the early years, CubeSats were only seen as platforms for uni students to test experiments. By 2013, however, this had changed. Aerospace companies started seeing their commercial potential and launches increased from a few to dozens a year.
There are some experts who worry their small size will add to the ever-growing space junk problem. Smaller objects are harder to track and currently there are thousands of pieces of space debris being monitored. Tiny, unknown fragments can be dangerous to spacecraft. In fact, in 2018 the US Federal Communications Commission denied a launch because committee members felt the CubeSat payload was too small.
In 2018, MarCO A and B became the first CubeSats to travel to another planet. Nicked named WALL-E and EVE after the characters in the Pixar film WALL-E, the two hitched a ride on the same rocket sending the InSight Lander to Mars. Each was 6 Units, about the size of a briefcase, and relayed information back to mission control about InSight as it descended towards the surface. NASA wanted to test if CubeSats could act as secondary communications antennae for future human missions heading to the red planet. MarCO A and B were successful and even continued working for a couple of months after their Martian flyby.
Australia is making its own CubeSat: CSIROSat-1. In a partnership between the CSIRO, Australian Space Agency and Inovor Technologies, it will be about the size of a bread loaf (3 Units) and will provide data that will help scientists monitor environmental changes. The project’s cost is $2 million and it’s expected to fly later this year.
There have been thousands of CubeSats sent into space since their creation. They continue to aid research and pioneer new technologies. More deep space missions are being planned for them, including one to a nearby asteroid and others on upcoming Artemis rockets to the Moon.
Photo Credit: NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/iss038e046586.jpg)
Australia’s Small Satellite Revolution (https://particle.scitech.org.au/space/australias-small-satellite-revolution/)
CSIROSat-1 CubeSat (https://research.csiro.au/cceo/underpinning-technologies/csirosat-1-cubesat/)
CSIROSat-1 Nanosatellite (https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Facilities/CSIROSat-1)
CubeSats Overview (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cubesats/overview)
Cubesats: Tiny Payloads, Huge Benefits for Space Research (https://www.space.com/34324-cubesats.html)
MarCO (Mars Cube One) (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/mars-cube-one/in-depth/)
Mars Cube One (MarCO) (https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco.php)
What are SmallSats and CubeSats? (https://www.nasa.gov/content/what-are-smallsats-and-cubesats)