CubeSats: How to Build a Low-Cost Satellite

What is a CubeSat?

The past decade has seen a substantial shift in the space industry with the arrival of what is often referred to as “New Space”. This takes a different approach to satellite deployment: harnessing the miniaturisation of electronics, it enables smaller, more capable spacecraft to be launched in higher volumes and at lower cost.

At the same time, there has been a boom in potential applications for both data obtained from space and services delivered from space, such as satellite communications or Earth observations. New Space technology has been perfectly placed to address these needs, with significantly shorter time-to-market than more traditional spacecraft.

A CubeSat is a particular type of small satellite that has gained its popularity due to well-defined standards, intended to reduce costs and development effort. The CubeSat standard was developed by California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University, originally aimed at scientific research and exploration of new space technologies. Over the years, CubeSats made their way into commercial projects and are now seen as one of the quickest and cost-effective ways to demonstrate space technologies or deliver a service from space.

What is the CubeSat specification?

CubeSats must comply with the standards described in the CubeSat specification, published by Cal Poly. They are made up of 10x10x10cm units (known as 1U size) and weigh no more than 1.33kg per unit. They often use off-the-shelf components to reduce costs and this can include electronics, subsystems and even software. CubeSats can also come in various sizes, such as 1U, 2U, 3U, 6U+, to support more capabilities and more complex technology.  

How to build a CubeSat fast

One of the main advantages of a CubeSat is the short time required to develop and launch the satellite. A CubeSat can be designed, built, tested, and delivered in as little as 6 months, but typically takes 18 to 24 months to complete, which is significantly faster than a traditional satellite approach.   

This is mainly achieved through the wide use of off-the-shelf components for electronics and subsystems, which is one of the key principles of CubeSat mission development. It allows CubeSat missions to quickly develop complex yet reliable spacecraft at low cost and within time constraints.

Onboard software can also be one the off-the-shelf components of CubeSat development. Just like the hardware, flight software can come readily available to simplify and speed up development, ensure it is accessible early in the development process for rigorous testing and successful integration.   

There are a variety of solutions available for spacecraft software development, but they all attempt to solve similar problems – i.e. help users create a reliable and functional flight software package as quickly and as cost-efficiently as possible. It’s important to make informed decisions and consider why commercially licensed off-the-shelf software might be a better option and how it can help the mission succeed.

How to build a CubeSat that works

Despite the current boom in the global CubeSat market, one fact is often true: lower costs and fast space mission development may increase the risk of failures. Once in orbit, CubeSats have to perform without failure as there is no physical access to them to resolve any potential issues. Rigorous testing and robust components can help improve reliability.

Onboard software is the “glue” that is holding all the CubeSat subsystems together and getting it right is the key to reliability. To allow for meticulous testing and sound integration, the flight software package needs to be simple and functional, so it is available early on in the space mission development process and adaptable to accommodate any requirements changes.

One solution to this is off-the-shelf flight software like our Flight Software Development Kit, which is designed to quickly and easily adapt standard software to any unique needs of the mission – no matter whether it’s a single CubeSat or a large constellation.

How to build a CubeSat that doesn’t blow your budget

Standardisation and wide use of off-the-shelf components also allows developers to keep costs under control at fixed prices and limit the requirement for various resources.

From the software perspective, developers want to ensure that the spacecraft flight software package can be built quickly and without the need for specialist skills so the bulk of effort is concentrated on the unique parts of the mission.

Our FSDK is designed to support rapid development with ease and simplicity in mind. Additionally, being an open system, it can be easily extended to work with new subsystems, new hardware, new and existing software components. This means it gives access to the best available and most cost-effective off-the-shelf components in the market.

Know your competition: how many CubeSats have been launched

As of 4th April 2021, 1553 CubeSats have been launched and it is forecasted that over 2500 CubeSats will be launched in in the next 6 years! Such a highly competitive market can make it challenging for new entrants to succeed.

Innovation and continuous improvements in efficiency and productivity is what can bring better results and a positive difference to any space mission. 

At Bright Ascension, innovation is at the heart of everything that we do. We offer a unique and innovative approach to spacecraft flight software engineering for quick, efficient and cost-effective CubeSat mission development and operation.

Find out more about what makes our products unique and how they can help your CubeSat mission succeed.

We’ve been evolving our technology over the past 12 years through extensive development work. During this time, our software has powered more than 50 spacecraft in orbit, helping them to maximise their mission potential. 

Contact us today to see our products in action and arrange a one-to-one demo of our software, tailored to your unique mission needs and requirements.



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