Commercial prospects for CubeSats

CubeSats have evolved from a convenient format for students to practice satellite building into a legitimate standard for nanosatellites. New Space opportunities have opened up the potential of CubeSats to cover roles that conventional satellites no longer need to and at a fraction of the cost.

CubeSat commercial applications are numerous and will continue to grow as private spaceflight disruptors consolidate their services and capabilities.

But what is a CubeSat, and where can CubeSats go in future?

What is a CubeSat?

A CubeSat describes the particular standard for a form of nanosatellite. CubeSats exist in parts of 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, each 10cm cube constituting one ‘unit’. CubeSats can be several units in size and typically have no more than 2kg of mass per unit.

CubeSats began as a way for university students to pick up simplified and standardised satellite development using off-the-shelf components, as well as a more affordable route to scientific research for academia. The CubeSat project was started by professors Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, of California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University, respectively. Cal Poly’s CubeSat program maintains the CubeSat design and publishes its guidelines.

Though seeing early use mostly in academia, CubeSats have been recognised as a convenient standard for nanosatellite development, particularly in the emerging New Space industry. They haven’t replaced conventional satellites completely, but commercial, military and government entities have recognised their potential as simpler, smaller ways to carry out vital activities above Earth.

How are CubeSats used in industry?

CubeSats continue to be used heavily in research and academic study, but they also have uses in commercial industry and often their missions further both sides of satellite usage. For instance, the European Space Agency (ESA) is developing the M-ARGO, a 12-unit CubeSat designed to travel into deep space and meet with an asteroid target. Amongst its goals, the mission is intended to act as proof of cheaper entry-level space exploration using the miniaturised COTS technology of nanosats.

CubeSats are commonly put into low Earth orbit (LEO) which makes them ideal for imaging and communications roles. The first satellite used by the Royal Thai Air Force, NAPA-1, is in fact a CubeSat. Its payload comprises two high-quality imagers which are used to aid in disaster relief. The satellite is six units in size and has been in orbit since September 2020. Thailand owns and operates seven satellites in total, according to the UCS Satellite Database. This is a number dwarfed even by smaller nations such as Luxembourg which operates 41 satellites. The accessibility of CubeSats means that countries not on such a competitive footing in spaceflight have an opportunity to catch up, even for military and industrial applications.

CubeSat simplicity is allowing development of satellite development in and of itself, with missions like MakerSat-1 and Orbital Factory 2. MakerSat-1 was built from 3D printed plastic pieces, and it is the first satellite to be assembled and deployed directly in space.

Orbital Factory 2’s mission involves testing the process of repairing solar arrays during active deployment, testing a mechanism that can simulate repairs by placing conductive ink onto a printed circuit board. Missions like these are valuable early test runs for the concept of 3D printing in space, which could revolutionise the concept of building CubeSats by removing the need to build and launch them from the ground.

CubeSat commercial applications in space could see the very development of CubeSats becoming even cheaper and more convenient.

How CubeSats have advanced

CubeSats have advanced from an educational challenge to a genuinely viable satellite format that can fulfil missions and further scientific understanding. They’ve become a convenient and cost-efficient vehicle for payloads and the flight software that powers their missions, and their light mass and size means more of them can be put into orbit at a time.

In 2021, SpaceX managed to launch 143 satellites on a single rocket, thanks to the compact size of CubeSats. They may still abide by the same standards of size as when they were first conceived, but the role and significance of CubeSats in the space industry – particularly New Space – has come a long way.

In terms of technology, CubeSats can now make use of some impressive technology like highly accurate imagers (cameras) that can differentiate objects on Earth’s surface that are less than a metre apart. Despite this, the main appeal of CubeSats as spacecraft that can be built using purely off-the-shelf parts remains, and so in some ways their complexity should not advance too far.

Key trends for now and the future

One future trend that is often predicted within the space industry – and one that would seem evident with events like SpaceX’s aforementioned record-breaking launch – is an increase in the number of small satellite launches.

In their 2019 report, SpaceWorks estimated between 2,000 and 2,800 nanosatellite launches in the following five years. The same report projects that military operators will be among the most prominent, something that the U.S. Department of Defense seems to be evidencing in their own use of CubeSats.

The low cost of developing and launching CubeSats also makes them essential vehicles for testing and advancing technologies, not only in defence but in manufacturing, engineering, and the space industry itself.

Finally, increased use of CubeSats and the COTS components they consume will also mean an increased demand for the software that empowers them, with convenient and ready-to-use solutions being essential.

Readymade satellite software

Bright Ascension’s COTS software for small satellites perfectly meets the scale of CubeSats without hindering their reliability and power. Our Flight Software Development Kit has a library of pre-validated software components that can be selected and implemented to suit your mission precisely. Scale the software as needed and reintegrate it in future missions.

To learn more about CubeSat software and how easy it can be, contact us today.