Blog

What are the components of a CubeSat?

CubeSats are simplified and standardised versions of satellites. In theory, anybody could build a CubeSat, and being composed of units measuring just 10cm³ makes them approachable and small-scale. CubeSat components are typically ‘off the shelf’, lowering barriers to entry even further.

However, CubeSats have become much more than practice models or playthings. Plenty of CubeSats now fulfil important roles and embark on scientific missions with valuable goals. CubeSat structural design might be simplified but these nanosatellites are just as capable of big jobs.

What are CubeSats used for?

CubeSats typically fulfil roles belonging to satellites in low Earth orbit. This mostly includes imaging, Earth sciences, and communications application due to the advantages of orbiting closer to the planet’s surface. Off-the-shelf hardware availability means that CubeSats can still carry advanced payloads that enable tasks like taking high-definition imagery from up in orbit.

CubeSats are particularly effective in constellations because their diminutive size makes them into small but effective nodes in a network. Their low cost of development also means that a CubeSat constellation can be developed and launched with a much more competitive price tag than a conventional one.

While CubeSats commonly don’t stray far from Earth for their missions, NASA has been focusing on ways to use them in interplanetary and deep space contexts. Following on from the 2018 MarCO mission which saw a pair of CubeSats exploring the Red Planet, the upcoming Artemis I mission aims to carry ten CubeSats as secondary payloads.

These nanosatellites will perform a variety of roles including searching for the presence of water on the Moon, testing the effects of deep-space radiation on live yeast, and even orbiting the Sun to measure its radiation and space weather outputs.

With New Space reducing the cost of commercial space launches – on which CubeSats are able to piggyback – they may soon become fully viable replacements for conventional satellites in a myriad roles.

How do CubeSats work?

CubeSats are built from units, one unit measuring 10cm³. A CubeSat might be anything from a single unit to 16U or more.

To launch into orbit, CubeSats are loaded into dispensers, which are apparatuses attached to the launch vehicle that protect the satellites during their journey and release them into space at the right time. CubeSats ‘hitch a ride’ to get into space, often being secondary payloads rather than primary ones.

Once in space, CubeSats keep themselves powered via their solar panels collecting energy from the Sun. To keep providing power during eclipses or any other obfuscation, the satellite uses rechargeable batteries (usually lithium-ion) that hold a reserve of power. These can also assist if the satellite demands greater power than the solar cells alone can provide.

To regulate their temperatures in space, CubeSat structural design incorporates multiple layers of insultation and onboard heaters to keep the battery at optimal temperature. Sensors may be used to monitor the temperatures of individual components.

Depending on its mission, the CubeSat’s components, payload, and software can differ significantly. A CubeSat designed to take images from space, for instance, might carry a payload including an imager and a transceiver, in order to send the images it takes down to ground stations.

In the case of observation satellites, the onboard software will also need to take up tiny amounts of computing power to keep space available for high-resolution image data.

CubeSats will work either for as long as they can, or for as long as they need. Some CubeSats complete their missions within days and weeks, others might take months. Provided changes in the residual atmosphere don’t present too much drag for the CubeSat to stay up and other problems don’t present themselves, the journeys of these satellites are planned to ensure they burn up on re-entry once their jobs are done.

Common CubeSat components

Though payloads differ, CubeSats feature some common components needed to function in space and serve a purpose for their teams on Earth.

Solar panels

Solar panels gather solar energy to power the satellite’s systems. Due to the relative proximity to the Sun outside of Earth’s atmosphere, solar panels in space tend to have a higher efficiency than those based back on the ground.

Some panels are folded down before deployment, then unfold to their full size once in space, allowing them to save room where needed without sacrificing energy yield.

Batteries and electrical power systems

Rechargeable battery arrays allow satellites to store the power they gather from their solar panels. Electrical power systems aid in routing power to the necessary components and protect them from being fed too much current or voltage.

With the rise in demand for electric vehicles, it’s probable that advancing battery technology may benefit CubeSats in the near future, creating even more efficient lithium-ion rechargeable batteries in small packages.

Communications

Communications systems are essential for CubeSats. Once in orbit, there is no feasible way for its crew to manipulate the satellite without telecommunications enabling them to send commands and downlink data from the spacecraft.

CubeSats use radio communication for these telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) conversations with ground stations, which can be complicated by interference stemming from sources like space weather.

Software

Though not a physical component like the above examples, flight software is a non-negotiable component for any CubeSat and is essentially the “glue” that hold everything together. It is arguably the most important component too, as without software a CubeSat is little more than a box of electronics.

Flight software is what controls the CubeSat and manages its tasks, as well as processing data, allowing the ground team to communicate with the satellite, and generally allowing the on board computer to function as the satellite’s ‘brain’. Faulty software can make an otherwise expertly crafted CubeSat useless.

Off-the-shelf software for CubeSats

Despite being the most important of CubeSat components, software can be bought in a ready-made format just like solar panels and antennae. Bright Ascension’s Flight Software Development Kit has a library of pre-validated software components that can be chosen and integrated with ease, equipping your satellite with software that just works.

ACADEMIC PROGRAMME

TRY OUR SOFTWARE FOR FREE

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.

Bright Start Academic Programme

Learn more: Book a demo

We run regular demo sessions for our Flight Software Development Kit and Mission Control Software that you can book at any time. These are group sessions but you can join anonymously and participate as much or as little as you like. Book demo today.