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A new type of technology of satellites is making space missions more affordable and accessible than they have ever been. The CubeSat is so small that you can hold it in your hands, a box that weighs just 1 kilogram, and can be piggybacked on someone else’s rocket. It is modular form and can be stacked up to form bigger units.

It is in a standardised format that uses cheap, off-the-shelf electronics, and it is cheap enough for universities or companies to develop. But it is capable of carrying out very serious science and radically opening up the opportunities for space research.

‘CubeSats,’ says one of the founders of the concept, Professor Bob Twiggs of Morehead State University in Kentucky, ‘could do for space what the Apple II did for computing 30 years ago: spark an economic and technological revolution by placing a well-known but formerly inaccessible technology in the hands of just about everyone.’

We’ve become used to thinking of satellites as big and heavy, although Sputnik 1 was just over 80 kilograms. But the development of more powerful rockets led to satellites becoming larger and more complex, and today they typically weigh several tons.

But there has also been a pattern of using smaller ‘microsatellites’ – from 10 to 100 kilograms. They were used for some kinds of atmospheric research, and also for amateur radio links. And in the 1980s the technology really began to take off, as electronics devices became ever smaller and sophisticated.

In the late 1990s, Bob Twiggs, then at Stanford University, along with Professor Jordi Puig-Suari of California State University, realized that standardization was needed, in the same way that the open-source movement had developed in software creation. In the year 2000 they published the specifications for a CubeSat.

It would be a cube with a 10 centimetre side (about 4 inches) and thus a volume of 1 litre (a couple of pints). Cubes could also be joined, to make for instance a 2U CubeSat (two boxes) or a three-box 3U CubeSat.

It’s built out of a metal frame, within which is fitted the various components – the electronics, the instruments, communications systems, power units (often now produced by the Scottish company Clyde Space in Glasgow).

‘CubeSats also often have solar panels on several sides and an antenna protruding from one end; some may soon have rudimentary navigation systems, with tiny nozzles that can stabilize the craft’s attitude and orient it in a desired direction,’ says Twiggs in a recent Scientific American article co-written with Dr Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a research fellow at Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK.

A dramatic change

Bob Twiggs and Alex Pang sum up the radical new shift in technology that’s opening up:

‘For decades each generation of satellites has been more complicated and expensive than its predecessor, taken longer to design, and required an infrastructure of expensive launch facilities, global monitoring stations, mission specialists and research centres,’ they say.

‘In recent years, however, improvements in electronics, solar power and other technologies have made it possible to shrink satellites dramatically. A new type of satellite, called CubeSat, drastically simplifies and standardizes the design of small spacecraft and brings costs down to less than $100,000 to develop, launch and operate a single satellite – a tiny fraction of the typical mission budget of NASA or the European Space Agency.’

Already the new technology is starting to take off, as innovative people realize its potential.

‘Aerospace engineers and astrophysicists have been joined by professors and students from other departments, and entrepreneurs have started companies offering launch services and support. Countries without much of a space program, have been able to start one. Switzerland and Colombia have already launched their countries’ first CubeSats, and several others – including Estonia – are working on their own. CubeSats even make it possible for individual U.S. states to start their own space programs. Most notably, Kentucky has formed a consortium of academic and nonprofit institutions to build a CubeSat industry.’

Kentucky Space, which reached space with its Frontier-1 CubeSat in March 2010, has a strong educational aspect. All its missions are student-led and student-designed, with professional support coming from mentors in industry and academia. It recently completed KySat-1, entirely designed, built and tested by university students. The aim of the satellite was educational outreach, to transmit signals and pictures that could be detected on the ground by standard amateur radio equipment – and to enable children to send up commands to the satellite to take photographs.

It was due to fly piggyback with NASA’s Glory mission, which was developed to look at the Earth’s energy balance, but a problem with the Taurus rocket meant that the launch failed. However, several more Kentucky satellites are scheduled for launching through the rest of 2011.

The low cost of CubeSats means that if something goes wrong, you can pick yourself up and try again. ‘It lets you fail and it lets you innovate. That’s a key to entrepreneurship,’ says the president and founder of Kentucky Science and Development Corporation, Kris W. Kimel.

It also means that you can try out ideas without having to take years to mobilize funding. QuakeSat, launched in 2003, measured very subtle changes in the earth’s magnetic field to see if these could be used to predict earthquakes. LightSail-1 is testing the world’s first solar-wind sail, to investigate a possible new means of propulsion. CloudSat studies the build-up of vertical cloud structure over a period of days.

Companies have been coming forward to provide orbital facilities for Cubesat builders. The Houston-based company NanoRoacks installed a CubeSat holder on the International Space Station and now leases out space. Various companies have taken up the opportunity, and so have educational institutions – including one high school.

‘The idea that CubeSats could be the PCs of space science – cheap, flexible, commoditized and standardized – suggests a final and potentially even more revolutionary role: enabling an amateur presence in space,’ say Twiggs and Pang. ‘This may come sooner rather than later: space start-up Interorbital Systems in Mojave, California, plans to offer CubeSat kits and low-Earth-orbit launch for less than $10,000.’

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