CubeSat 101: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Satellite Technology - NanoAvionics

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CubeSat 101: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Satellite Technology

Blog
  • 2023-10-03

Did you know that the race for space innovation is now being led not just by giant satellites, but by tiny cube-shaped devices barely larger than a coffee mug? Enter the world of CubeSats and learn what is a CubeSat and how they are used.

Introduction

A Cubesat, often referred to as a nanosatellite, in its simplest form, is a compact, standardized satellite used primarily in Low Earth Orbit. As space exploration propels itself to the forefront of modern technological advancements, understanding the relevance of these mini marvels becomes ever more paramount. Did you know, for instance, that the launch rate of CubeSats has increased by more than tenfold in the past decade?

What‘s better than a real-life size comparison?  

What is a Cubesat? A Simple Definition

Think of a Rubik’s cube. Now, imagine that cube equipped with state-of-the-art technology, ready for outer space. That’s a CubeSat for you. These miniature satellites are categorized by their size, using a unit designation ranging from 1U (one unit) to as large as 16U. One of these can weigh anywhere between 1.33 kilograms to over 30 kilograms, challenging the agenda that “bigger is always better.”

cubesat-size-comparison

Ok, ok. If you‘ve never met an AT-RT walker in person, here‘s a hand compared to the most common CubeSat sizes – 1U / 2U / 3U / 6U / 8U / 12U / 16U.

You might also be thinking, what is not a CubeSat? Their larger siblings, called microsatellites, can often be mistaken for CubeSats due to their similar square appearance. The main things to look for in a microsatellite are its physical size, deployment ring, or any instruments protruding from its frame (apart from so-called “tuna cans “). Since CubeSats go to space on launch vehicles housed in deployment pods, their dimensions are strictly defined by the deployer pod walls. Microsatellites, however, are attached to rockets via separation rings without encapsulation, allowing their instruments to protrude outside the satellite’s frame.

See both CubeSats and Small Satellites and their technical specs here.

nanoavionics-cubesat-small-satellite
NanoAvionics 1U CubeSat next to an MP42 microsatellite. MP42 resembles a CubeSat, but is larger and deployed using a separation ring.  

The Evolution of Cubesats

From inception to space revolution: The journey of CubeSats began in the late 1990s with California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University professors looking to develop a standard framework for students to quickly and reliably launch their projects into space. Initiated as an educational endeavor, it soon turned into a revolution, democratizing space for professionals and hobbyists alike.

Over the years, institutions like NASA, Planet Labs, NanoAvionics, and others worldwide have played pivotal roles in advancing Cubesat technology, turning them into indispensable tools for commercial space exploration and scientific research.

Diving Deep: The Technical Anatomy of a Cubesat

Dimensions and design specifics: A standard 1U CubeSat measures 10x10x10 centimeters. However, nowadays, most nanosatellites are 6U and larger due to decreased launch costs, more sophisticated payload instruments, and missions.

Essential components and their roles: To understand a spacecraft’s design and function, knowing the distinction between a satellite bus and a payload is fundamental. 

what-is-inside-cubesat

An exploded view of a NanoAvionics 6U nanosatellite bus and its core components.

The satellite bus (sometimes called the platform) is a spacecraft’s foundational support structure and subsystems. The bus contains the standard equipment required to keep the satellite operational, irrespective of its primary mission. Key components and systems in a satellite bus include:

  1. Power Systems: Usually solar panels and batteries to supply and store energy.
  2. Thermal Control: Systems to manage the temperature of the satellite, ensuring it operates within the required ranges.
  3. Propulsion: For larger satellites that need to adjust their orbits or attitude.
  4. Communication: The transmitters and receivers that allow the satellite to communicate with Earth.
  5. Structural System: The physical framework holding everything in place.
  6. Onboard Computer and Data Handling: Microcontrollers, the brains behind these compact wonders, process and execute commands for operations, data processing, and control, ensuring CubeSats function optimally in the unforgiving environment of space.
  7. Attitude Control System: Sensors and actuators that detect and adjust the satellite’s orientation in space.
16U-earth-observation-cubesat
This high-resolution optical payload in a 16U nanosatellite bus can provide 1.5 meter GSD resolution from a 500 km orbit.

The payload is the primary mission equipment or the reason the satellite is in space. Depending on the satellite’s purpose, payloads can be:

  1. Scientific Instruments: For monitoring the Earth’s climate, cosmic phenomena, or interplanetary exploration.
  2. Communication Equipment: For telecommunications satellites to relay TV, internet, radio, etc.
  3. Telescopes: To observe distant celestial bodies.
  4. Cameras: For reconnaissance or Earth observation.
  5. Other Specialized Equipment: Depending on the specific mission or purpose of the satellite.

In a nutshell, the satellite bus ensures the spacecraft can function and survive in the challenging environment of space, while the payload carries out the specific tasks or missions the spacecraft is designed for. It’s a harmonious blend of standardized systems and mission-specific equipment working together to achieve objectives in space.

Comparing CubeSats and Traditional Satellites

Size, scalability, and advantages: While CubeSats are dwarfed by traditional satellites, their modular design makes them incredibly scalable. This scalability offers versatility in applications, from Earth monitoring to communication services and advanced scientific experiments.

Cost implications and deployment ease: Traditional satellites come with a hefty price tag, while CubeSats, due to their size and standardized design, significantly cut down both developmental and launch costs.

Performance capabilities and constraints: While CubeSats are technologically adept, their compact size does place certain limitations, particularly when it comes to power storage and the complexity of onboard instruments, which often leads to more performance tradeoffs in more advanced missions compared to microsatellites.

Microsatellites payload volumes are restricted by the launcher’s payload fairing, whereas CubeSats‘ are restricted by their deployers.  

Practical Uses of Cubesats in Today’s World

Advancements in scientific research: From finding tiny black holes in our galaxy to testing novel space technologies, CubeSats are at the forefront of scientific innovation.

Earth monitoring and data relay: These mini marvels have proven invaluable in monitoring environmental changes, crop yields, natural disasters, and more, providing crucial data in near real-time.

Innovations in communication and tech trials: CubeSats have also paved the way for improved communication networks and are often used as test beds for pioneering space technologies such as space-based 5G Internet of Things networks.

New opportunities for national security and defense: With their ability to be rapidly developed and deployed, CubeSats offer strategic advantages in defense and surveillance applications.

image-from-cubesat
Constellr is looking to develop the world’s first globally scalable water stress monitoring system for agriculture. Currently, more than 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture and 60% of that goes to waste. Image credis: Constellr

Peeking into the Future: CubeSats in Upcoming Space Missions

Noteworthy missions on the horizon: Projects like LANL’s MAMBO, which aims to make the best-ever measurement of the cosmic diffuse gamma-ray (CDG) background, spotlight the evolving role of CubeSats in space missions.

Technological breakthroughs to watch out for: As technology advances, expect CubeSats to house more sophisticated instruments, enabling even more groundbreaking research and capabilities such as quantum communication.

New commercial applications: With affordable access to space, startups all over the world are coming up with novel ideas to utilize CubeSats to improve life on Earth through emission monitoring, environmental preservation, food security, and other services.

The growing role of community-driven open-source projects: The democratization of space technology means a surge in community-led CubeSat projects, fostering innovation and information democratization at an unprecedented scale.

Companies like Sen are trying to democratize space by providing 4K videos of Earth from orbit free of charge to the public. Pictured here is a frame from their video showing the burned area on Rhode island after the 2023 summer fires. Image credits: Sen

Overcoming Challenges in CubeSat Deployment

CubeSat destinations: While most CubeSats operate in Earth’s orbit, ambitious projects are looking further – to the Moon, other planets, and even asteroids.

Addressing technical hurdles: As CubeSats venture further from home, challenges like long-distance communication and robustness against harsh space environments come into play.

Navigating regulatory landscapes: As the number of CubeSats in space grows, so does the need for clear regulatory frameworks to ensure safe and efficient operations, minimizing risk of collisions.

Mitigating environmental concerns: With increased deployments come concerns about space debris. Addressing these environmental issues is crucial for the sustainable growth of CubeSat technology.

The Price of a CubeSat

How much do CubeSat missions cost?

When we talk about space missions, astronomical sums of money often come to mind. However, CubeSat missions challenge this notion. The cost of a CubeSat can vary dramatically based on its complexity, the mission’s objectives, and the technology embedded within it. A simple CubeSat designed for educational purposes could be built and launched for as low as $50,000 to $150,000. Contrastingly, a more sophisticated CubeSat, packed with cutting-edge tech for intricate research or commercial purposes, could cost anywhere from $500,000 to a few million dollars.

It’s essential to factor in the satellite’s manufacturing costs and launch expenses. Hitching a ride to space as secondary payloads or part of a rideshare mission, CubeSats often save significantly on launch costs. However, prices can fluctuate depending on the launch vehicle and orbit’s specific parameters.

How do their costs compare to large space missions?

In space exploration, where billion-dollar budgets are commonplace, CubeSats offer a breath of fresh fiscal air. With their behemoth structures, extensive instruments, and unique launch requirements, traditional satellite missions can run up bills from hundreds of millions to several billion dollars.

Comparing the two, CubeSats represent a tiny fraction of the cost of these large-scale missions. For instance, a comprehensive interplanetary mission could have a budget equivalent to launching hundreds or even thousands of CubeSats.

However, it’s crucial to balance the scales of comparison. While CubeSats offer cost savings, they might not always match the extensive capabilities, longevity, and range of more sizeable missions. Yet, their affordability makes them invaluable for frequent, targeted projects and provides an excellent platform for testing novel space technologies without breaking the bank.

CubeSats can even be deployed from the International Space Station. Pictured is „Light-1“ leaving the ISS. Image credits: NASA

Advantages and Disadvantages of CubeSats

Advantages: CubeSats are the epitome of cost-effectiveness in space technology. Given their short mission lifetimes and low orbits, their rapid development cycles, and standardized architectures make them an excellent option for many commercial, civil, and governmental entities.

Disadvantages: Every rose has its thorns. CubeSats, for all their advantages, come with limitations. Their confined size restricts payload capacities, they typically have shorter operational lifetimes and often require more performance tradeoffs than microsatellites in more advanced missions.

Conclusion

From their humble educational beginnings to leading the charge in space exploration and research, CubeSats have truly revolutionized our approach to space technology. Their significance in sculpting the future of space tech cannot be overstated.

Hungry for more space knowledge? Read a guide about Small Satellites. Or dive deeper into the world of satellite technology with NASA’s guide to CubeSat Developers. The universe awaits!