Recent CubeSat Missions

CubeSats have come a long way from their humble origins, and they’re now as much a research tool to be used by major space agencies as their larger conventional siblings.

Here are some recent CubeSat missions that have further proved the efficiency of these small satellites:

CAPSTONE

Designed with a unique onboard propulsion system, NASA’s CAPSTONE—Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment—is a CubeSat with a lot of innovation and aspiration behind its mission.

Firstly, the 12U CubeSat is acting as a pathfinder for Gateway, an orbital lunar outpost that forms a substantial component of NASA’s Artemis program. By launching into a halo-shaped orbit in cislunar space, it is aiming to verify the dynamics of such orbits for the benefit of future spacecraft.

CAPSTONE has a propulsion system that uses eight thrusters fed from a tank of hydrazine propellant, which it used to separate from an LEO orbit and make its way to the Moon. On 13th November 2022, CAPSTONE reached the operational phase of its mission, becoming the first CubeSat to arrive at our Moon.

The CubeSat’s mission is ongoing at time of writing, but the hardest part of its journey is over and it’s now in its final lunar orbit. Its performance and the data it supplies could unlock the future of Moon-based missions—even astronauts landing on Mars, as per the aims of the Artemis program.

Lunar Flashlight

Launched in December 2022, Lunar Flashlight is a 6U CubeSat described as ‘roughly the size of a briefcase‘. The CubeSat’s mission is to analyse ice deposits in the Moon’s permanently shadowed areas using near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy.

Lunar Flashlight is the first satellite to search for water in this way, and it’s also using an alternative propellant to hydrazine. 3U of the satellite’s build uses a 3D printed system utilising ASCENT (Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic) monopropellant, formerly known as AF-M315E. It’s a greener and less toxic chemical propellant that lessens the high dangers associated with handling hydrazine.

Information gleaned about the Moon’s frozen water sources is something that also feeds into NASA’s Artemis program, as the ice could potentially be utilised by astronauts and robots in future.

Lunar Flashlight’s mission is ongoing, but launch has been successful and its journey towards the Moon for the time being.

CubeRRT

CubeRRT deployed from the International Space Station in July 2018 and its mission ended in November 2020, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

CubeRRT (CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology Validation) is a 6U CubeSat built by Ohio State University. Its mission was one of technological demonstration, aiming to validate technologies that could filter out radio frequency interference aboard the satellite in real time.

The mission was successful, and validated future options for satellite operators when it comes to filtering out unwanted human-made frequencies that interfere with radiometers’ abilities to monitor Earth’s natural microwave radiation.

CubeRRT suffered from a lack of propulsion system, though it still outperformed initial estimates of its lifespan. Originally thought to last around one year in orbit, its extra year of activity outside of Earth’s lower atmosphere allowed it to gather even more data than expected.

CubeRRT is thought by its operators to have had a positive impact on the future of onboard microwave radiometers in satellites.

RaInCube

RaInCube (Radar in a CubeSat) was a 6U NASA CubeSat deployed from the ISS in June 2018, deorbiting on Christmas Eve 2020.

The satellite was used to track storms and profile rainfall on Earth, as well as demonstrate the feasibility of various radar and antenna technologies on a CubeSat. The satellite used Ka-band radar, a band that’s hard to detect and allows for smaller hardware.

Data gathered by the satellite will be used to inform future climate sciences and weather forecasting, and prove that quality data can be gathered by a low-cost, COTS-built satellite.

RaInCube and CubeRRT shared the same launch craft alongside a slew of other small satellites.

CubeSats: proper satellites

CubeSat missions continue to prove themselves and end with goals fulfilled, showing that even the cheaper and smaller spacecraft have plenty to provide to science and research.

At Bright Ascension, we fully believe in small satellites, and we’ve seen what they can do. If you’re looking to build or fly your CubeSat soon, let us help you with your software needs to develop your spacecraft quicker, cheaper and more reliably. What’s more, we know that academic programmes often have tight or strict budgets, so to support future skill-building within the academic community we offer to free or affordable licences for our flight and ground software products through Bright Start Academic programme.

To find out more about our Flight Software Development Kit and other solutions, get in touch with us today.