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How Much Does It Cost To Launch A CubeSat?

CubeSats represent a great option for those looking to launch a small-scale mission or to test a concept without needing a massive upfront investment. Less available room on such small units means smaller payloads, but this also means an easier time getting into orbit.

CubeSat launch cost can be offset by ‘ride-sharing’ with other satellites, one of the great benefits of these small but capable spacecraft.

So, what are CubeSats and what is the cost of launching one?

What is a CubeSat?

CubeSats are a type of small satellite that have traditionally been built with standard off-the-shelf hardware. Their name derives from their shape, and they were originally conceived as a way for students to practice building satellites on a small, simple scale.

Small satellites by definition weigh less than 500kg, and for CubeSats, this is nowhere near their typical weights. The standard dimensions of each CubeSat unit are 10cm x 10cm x 10cm, and each unit typically weighs less than 2kg.

A CubeSat cannot carry the kinds of payloads belonging to conventional satellites, but their relative simplicity means they cost many magnitudes less to develop and build. They can also be launched by hitching a ride on rockets that are being sent to orbit for other missions, as they weigh so little and take up very small amounts of space.

CubeSats aren’t built to last a long time and have a limited lifespan. Some are conceived to only function in orbit for a few weeks before falling down from low Earth orbit (LEO), where they will burn up in the atmosphere.

LEO was typically the only place that CubeSats would and could be employed. However, they are now seeing use in missions away from Earth’s orbit altogether.

NASA’s 2018 MarCO mission saw two CubeSats demonstrate the ability of small satellites to explore deep space, making them the first ever interplanetary CubeSats.

How many CubeSats are launched every year? 

According to the Nanosats Database, there have been 1,663 CubeSats launched as of January 2022.

The number of CubeSats launched every year is not something that sees a concrete trend. Though launches from 2011 to 2014 saw a strong year-on-year increase, these numbers steadily fell until 2017 when the total number of nanosatellites launched numbered at 297 up from 88 in 2016.

From 2017 onwards, numbers of nanosatellites declined again: 2018 saw 244 launches, 2019 saw 188 launches, and 2020 had 163 launches.

2021, however, launched 326 nanosatellites, 307 of which were CubeSats. 2020’s 163 nanosatellite total comprised 155 CubeSats, by comparison – just over half of the following year.

While the pandemic frustrated the supply and manufacture of many components across the globe, the sharp uptick of nanosatellite launches in 2021 suggests a strong recovery in the collective development of CubeSats.

Following the known development of CubeSats in 2022, including those not yet launched, Nanosats Database projects a possible 719 CubeSats to be launched over the coming year.

One thing is clear: CubeSats are seeing increased usage, likely thanks to the accessibility of their hardware and software components, and missions like MarCO proving their usefulness beyond low Earth orbit.

A breakdown of the costs involved

Building a CubeSat is actually not the most difficult or costly part. Getting it into orbit is where things can get a lot more expensive and complicated.

You can even build a CubeSat yourself using off-the-shelf hardware components as the “New Space” market is based around technology that would have previously been prohibitive in cost. These are the same parts and circuitry that one would find in everyday electronics and devices like cameras and smartphones. This makes them significantly simpler and cheaper to build than conventional satellites.

However, it would be even easier and simpler to buy one of ready-made CubeSat kits that available to purchase from around £5,000. These are designed for ease of use, development and operation and are an ideal option for self-starter and space enthusiasts.

It is almost impossible to define the upper limit of the commercial CubeSat price range, as can vary significantly based on what your mission is trying to achieve, what sort of payload you are using, what kind of conditions it needs to withstand and how long you expect your mission to last. In other words, the sky is the limit.

How much does it cost to launch a CubeSat?

CubeSat launch cost is a totally different affair altogether and that’s where your overall costs can hike up significantly.

The cost of launching a CubeSat depends upon whether it’s being put up using a dedicated launch or as part of a ‘ride share’ option.

Average market price of a dedicated launch differs depending on the weight of the satellite itself; more weight means more fuel and so putting a satellite into low Earth orbit costs around $30,000 (roughly £23,700) per kilogram of weight.

SpaceX’s Rideshare service offers costs as low (relatively speaking) as $1.1M to move 200kg into heliosynchronous orbit, with adjusted rates for other orbits such as low Earth orbit.

Launching the rocket itself comes with considerable costs. NASA launch costs have been placed at averages of $152 million dollars. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches can be seen as a comparative bargain at $62 million. This also means an average cost per kilo for NASA of $23,750, with an optimal cost of $6,078 for SpaceX.

These costs can largely come down to fuel, with propellants like liquid hydrogen costing around $376,000 for the necessary amount.

However, it should be noted that satellites are on their own once released from the rocket, and require the help of propulsion or a vehicle to put them into the correct position for their orbit. This requirement could present extra ‘hidden costs’ for CubeSat enthusiasts.

Other companies like Exolaunch offer launch and deployment services specifically for small satellites, including rideshare launches, having helped 184 CubeSats into orbit to date.

How can Bright Ascension help keep CubeSat costs down?

Our software solutions are easy to use and ready to go, taking away the financial burden of sourcing or developing the necessary software for your CubeSat mission. Our Flight Software Development Kit lets you choose from a ready-made library of pre-validated software components to build the exact solution for your satellite.

And if you’re working on a student mission, make sure to take a look at our Bright Start Academic Programme, which offers free or discounted flight and ground software licences for students, as well as software sponsorship for academic missions.

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To support future skill-building within the academic community we offer to affordable (in some instances free) licences for our flight and ground software products.

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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.