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 9 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.
Spacecraft fight software can also be one the off-the-shelf components for CubeSat development. Just like other subsystems, flight software can come readily available to ensure it is accessible early in the development process for rigorous testing and successful integration.
A good example of off-the-shelf spacecraft flight software is our own FSDK (Flight Software Development Kit), which allows developers to quickly build their own unique mission software package using our extensive library of pre-validated and configurable off-the-shelf components.
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, the CubeSat has to perform without failure as there is no physical access to it to resolve any potential issues. Rigorous testing and robust components can help improve reliability.
Spacecraft flight 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.
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 specialist skills and 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.