The emerging popularity of Earth observation CubeSats

CubeSats have found a purpose in many commercial and scientific applications, and their popularity continues to grow as a cost-effective solution for all kinds of missions. 

Despite their miniature size, CubeSats can carry payloads that perform their roles effectively.

Earth observation CubeSats are a way to access the superior vantage points of Earth’s orbit while using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, keeping costs down and spaceflight more accessible.

What is an Earth observation CubeSat?

Earth observation CubeSats are a means of monitoring areas of interest on the globe. Using specialised imagers and sensors, CubeSats can take high-resolution images and videos of the planet’s surface or gather valuable information and measurements such as atmospheric data.

Commonly, a single CubeSat won’t carry out the desired mission on its own. Capable though they are, CubeSats are still small craft that can only cover so much of the Earth’s surface. To bolster their capabilities, CubeSats will often be used in constellations—groups of cooperating, networked satellites that gather a collective body of data rather than focusing on their own singular work.

Constellations are the answer for CubeSat missions aiming to cover wider sections of the Earth’s surface, or those observing separate locations simultaneously, like both the North and South Poles.

Advantages of using CubeSats for Earth observation

One of the immediate advantages of using a CubeSat is that they keep costs down and are far more accessible than conventional satellites. Originally, satellites were solely the work of specialised engineers who built them to large scale and with specialised technology. For space agencies like NASA, much of this technology would be developed in-house and custom built for purpose.

Since CubeSats use COTS subsystems and hardware, the parts needed to build them can be bought by virtually anyone and integrated with relative ease. Given that COTS components are intended to be as convenient and accessible as possible, many are designed with simple connection in mind.

CubeSats also don’t require their own dedicated launches. Due to being composed of 10cm x 10cm x 10cm units and typically weighing a handful of kilograms, CubeSats can be launched in batches by ridesharing on the back of rockets as additional payloads. Once in orbit, CubeSats can even get help with deployment from the International Space Station.

Another advantage to using CubeSats for Earth observation is that CubeSats typically occupy a closer region of Earth’s orbit—low Earth orbit, or LEO. This puts the satellites in a beneficial distance from the planet for observation purposes, while ensuring they can deorbit smoothly once they reach the end of their useful lives.

Additionally, CubeSats take up far less room, reducing the chances of collisions and reducing the ‘clutter’ of our satellite fields. Deorbiting CubeSats fall back to Earth once their orbits have eroded beyond the point they can be maintained, and eventually burn up in the atmosphere and disintegrate.

When an aforementioned Earth observation CubeSat constellation is needed, the logistical and cost-saving benefits of the nanosatellites shine through.

Building and launching a CubeSat is more affordable than doing the same with a conventional satellite, and this increased affordability increases exponentially when building and launching a whole constellation. In fact, the first few CubeSats of any constellation could be launched in one go by sharing the same rocket.

This jumpstarts missions in a way that wouldn’t be so attainable with large conventional satellites.

Can I launch my own Earth observation CubeSat?

CubeSats are largely COTS-based creations, so theoretically they are open to anybody. For the layperson, a CubeSat may be too much to build without doing plenty of research, having some practice with hardware, and putting aside a healthy amount of money.

If you’re part of a college or university, you may be able to get involved in an existing CubeSat project or secure funding for your own. Given the educational origins of the CubeSat, it may be worthwhile for students to explore this avenue of getting into CubeSat design and development.

Of course, building your CubeSat is half of the work. You still need to launch it into orbit, meaning you need to find a rocket with free space for a rideshare, or else work with a private launch provider.

Such businesses have slowly begun to appear alongside other entities in the emerging New Space sector, which is opening spaceflight more and more for commercial purposes. Companies like Exolaunch offer US and Europe-based launches for small satellites, giving independent developers a way to break into orbit.

It should be noted that it isn’t just individuals or small research groups launching CubeSats. Government institutions are also turning to CubeSats for their accessibility and usefulness for reduced costs and smaller time to launch.

While they remain one of the most accessible ways for an individual to create a satellite, they’re not longer simply the work of hobbyists and tinkerers.

What are the components of a CubeSat?

In addition to their payloads, CubeSats feature some common components needed to function in space and serve a purpose for their teams on Earth, such as solar panels, batteries and electrical power systems, radio communications. But software remains at the heart of a CubeSat, binging all hardware together.

It is arguably the most important component too, as without software a CubeSat is little more than a box of electronics. It is critical to use reliable and efficient flight software that ensures your CubeSat is developed as quickly as possible to meet the strict launch deadlines, keeps your costs under control and lowers any risk and failures in orbit.

Software choice becomes even more important when your first validation or demonstration mission starts to grow and develops into a constellation. However, each new satellite in your constellation is likely to be slightly different – e.g. with new or updated functionality, hardware or modules. These new components will need to be integrated into the existing and functioning software system, increasing risk and delivery timescales. Moreover, the complexity of managing and operating such a constellation can be significant.

One answer to this is an end-to-end CubeSat software system that supports all stages of space-based service provision and simplifies development, testing, operation and delivery throughout the entire lifespan of the space system. Built on the same underlying technology, it ensure that any changes in any part of the system, such as new hardware or software updates, are automatically captured and shared across the entire software infrastructure from orbit to ground.

This approach provides an advanced operational concept so operators can focus on mission goals and service delivery and not worry about integration, change management and updates to hardware or software components.

And what’s more, with its modular structure and off-the-shelf products it perfectly fits into the COST and CubeSat ethos, but allows for great flexibility and bespoke optimisation.

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