Everything you need to know about CubeSats
The advent of miniaturised satellites has revolutionised space exploration.
Gone are the days where space was restricted to those only with pockets as deep as the ocean. Today, almost anyone can build their own satellite with a smaller investment, and an interest in using off-the-shelf items to launch it into space.
Among these, CubeSats have emerged as one of the more popular and cost-effective options.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the fundamentals of CubeSats, highlighting their definition, distinctions from traditional satellites, various applications, typical orbital lifespans, and associated costs.
What Is a CubeSat?
Simply put, a CubeSat is a highly standardised satellite to make spacecraft development easier as it follows a simplified design, therefore shifts the focus from the satellite itself to the payload. Designed to be simple, modular, and compatible with various launch vehicles and deployment systems, CubeSats are often launched in groups or constellations to achieve greater coverage or functionality.
This means you could launch a group of CubeSats that work together and can do anything from creating a network of communication to monitoring a region of interest.
Thanks to growing interest towards ‘New Space’, a trend in the industry characterised by the emergence of original approaches, technologies and business models aims to revolutionise space exploration and utilisation, such as SpaceX, rocket lab and virgin galactic.
CubeSats have emerged as a popular type of small satellite that takes advantage of the miniaturisation of electronics driven by this interest. This has given rise to new applications beyond research and education in commercial projects offering a quick and cost-effective way to demonstrate space technologies or deliver services from space.
What Is The Difference Between Traditional Satellites and CubeSats?
While traditional satellites and “New Space” CubeSats are spacecraft that orbit the Earth or other celestial bodies, they differ significantly in their size, complexity, and purpose. Traditional satellites are usually custom-built for specific missions and require extensive engineering effort, testing, integration and significant investment.
CubeSats, on the other hand, are a specific class of small satellites that are usually developed for shorter missions, they can be developed much quicker and cheaper, using widely available Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware subsystems..
Here are some of their key differences:
Size and mass
CubeSats are much smaller and lighter than traditional satellites, which can range from a few hundred kilogrammes to several tonnes. CubeSats follow a standardised specification of a cubic shape with a side length of 10 centimetres and a mass of up to 1.33 kilogrammes. These units can be combined to form larger CubeSats, such as 2U (two units), 3U (three units), 6U (six units) or larger.
CubeSats are cheaper. A single CubeSat project can cost less than £430,000, depending on the complexity, payload, and launch options compared to tens or even hundreds of million a traditional satellite can cost.
Development and testing
CubeSats are simpler and faster to develop and test than traditional satellites. Being smaller and simpler, they are easier to build and can undergo testing in a more cost-effective manner. While CubeSats also require some environmental testing, their reduced complexity and modular design allows for less extensive testing. You can even test each subsystem independently.
Launch and deployment
They are easily launched as secondary payloads on various launch vehicles and standard development systems. Easier and more flexible to deploy than traditional satellites, CubeSats don’t require dedicated launch vehicles or deployment systems and are often launched on ride share missions.
Mission and purpose
CubeSats are often used for scientific research, technology demonstration, education, communication, or Earth observation. In recent years they are increasingly used for commercial purposes to deliver space-based data or a service. This trend is expected to develop rapidly as New Space companies take advantage of the rapid and cost-effective development that CubeSats bring to the market.
What Is A CubeSat Used For?
Don’t let its smaller size and cost fool you; a CubeSat isn’t limited in function. There are plenty of ways for CubeSats to be applied in various fields, including:
CubeSats equipped with imaging sensors can capture high-resolution images of Earth, aiding in climate monitoring, disaster response, and environmental research. For example, Planet Labs, an American public Earth imaging company, operates a constellation of more than 100 CubeSats that provide daily imagery of the entire Earth’s landmass.
CubeSats facilitate experiments in microgravity environments such as the low-Earth orbit, enabling scientific investigations in fields like astrophysics, biology, and materials science.
On December 31 2022, NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative launched their 150th CubeSat, codenamed MARIO from the University of Michigan.
MARIO will be autonomously communicating with the ground station allowing them to collect data on three-hour long tests over 15 months.
Beyond education, research and monitoring, CubeSats serve as platforms for testing new technologies, such as propulsion systems, communication protocols, and autonomous navigation algorithms. The Planetary Society used CubeSats codenamed LightSail 1 and 2 to successfully demonstrate the feasibility of using solar sailing as a means of propulsion in space.
Invaluable as an educational tool CubeSats allow students and universities to get hands-on experience designing, constructing and operating spacecrafts in a low-cost manner. One of the key features of CubeSats is the ability for it to be launched in a network; the QB50 project involved the launch of 50 CubeSats from 23 countries for atmospheric research.
There are also CubeSats that function as communication relays. They provide connectivity for remote areas and enhance existing communication networks. For example, Swarm Technologies operates a constellation of CubeSats providing low-cost data services for Internet of Things devices around the globe.
How Long Does A CubeSat Stay In Orbit?
The orbital lifespan of a CubeSat can vary depending on several factors, including altitude, atmospheric drag, and mission objectives. Generally, CubeSats operate in low Earth orbit (LEO), typically ranging from a few hundred kilometres to around 2,000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Their lifespan is dependent on their altitude with atmospheric drag causing a gradual decay in orbit until ultimately they re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.
Typically, the lifespan of a CubeSat in LEO is expected to be between 2-5 years. If a CubeSat is part of a larger constellation delivering e.g. Earth Observation or communication services, it needs to be replaced by a new spacecraft once it reaches the end of its life in orbit. This constant replenishment process creates new opportunities for the industry but also bring out a significant challenge of efficiently integrating new spacecraft (often with new hardware or software systems) into a fully functioning and operational space system.
However, some CubeSats may operate in higher orbits such as medium Earth orbit (MEO) or geostationary orbit (GEO), giving them longer lifespans but also exposing them to higher radiation levels and communication latency. Propulsion systems or deployable drag devices can be used to extend or shorten their orbital lifespan.
In short, the lifespan of the CubeSat depends entirely on mission requirements and its height of orbit. The higher it is, the longer it will stay up before re-entering and burning up.
How Much Does A CubeSat Typically Cost?
One of the primary advantages of CubeSats is their lower cost compared to traditional satellites. Simple weather satellites can cost anywhere upward from £169,000 not including their maintenance, miscellaneous costs and launch, which if often the biggest expense. Depending on several factors, including the complexity of mission, payload requirements, and launch options, a single CubeSat project can range from tens of thousands to a few million pounds.
CubeSats have revolutionised the space industry by offering an accessible and cost-effective means of conducting scientific research, technology demonstrations, and other applications. Their standardised form factor, modular design, and relatively short development cycle have made them increasingly popular among educational institutions, research organisations, and even commercial entities. As CubeSat technology continues to evolve and become more accessible, you could even try building and launching your very own satellite.
How can Bright Ascension help with building a CubeSat?
CubeSats may be small and simple, but they are still satellites at their core.
As such, they need to have robust hardware and software in order to carry out their missions alone in Earth orbit.
Bright Ascension applies the off-the-shelf construction philosophy to software, providing a Flight Software Development Kit that allows CubeSat operators to perform essential functions using pre-validated software components that can be easily combined and integrated.
To find out more about how Bright Ascension helps CubeSat developers and nanosat space flight, contact us today.