What is a nanosatellite?

The miniaturisation of technology has affected many devices and satellites are no exception.

The potential size of a useful satellite has shrunk to a fraction of a conventional one, and we call these tiny devices ‘nanosatellites’.

Nanosatellites have already had a big impact on the accessibility and capacity of satellite missions, and will continue to do so into the future.

But what makes these small spacecraft so attractive as an option for private entities and where could they go?

What is a nanosatellite used for?

Nanosatellites are used for many of the same applications as conventional satellites, although it should be noted that nanosats have not completely replaced them.

Conventional satellites still rule supreme in certain roles for the companies and military industrial arms of governments that can afford them, because they utilise custom-built parts and can perform roles in geostationary orbits (GEO) for long periods of time.

However, nanosatellites are valuable for roles that benefit from low Earth orbits (LEO) and are made more expansive by working in constellations, such as Earth observation. Nanosatellites can keep track of animal migration patterns, the growth of crop fields, or the presence of algae in water bodies.

Ideally, these satellites are used for short-term missions that won’t demand a huge amount of invested capital, since nanosats are typically built with off-the-shelf components and are designed to expend their usefulness relatively quickly before burning up upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

How did nanosatellites come about? (And why?)

Nanosatellites have several standardised forms like CubeSats and PocketQubes that give small satellite builders solid guidelines to work by.

The rationale behind earlier projects like CubeSat has expanded to benefit the space industry as a whole.

The CubeSat project began under a collaborative team formed by California State Polytechnic University and Stanford University in 1999. The objective was to give students an easier, more simplified and standardised way to build and develop their own satellites, as well as making access to space more affordable for the universities themselves.

Now, nanosatellites present a way for virtually anybody to build and furnish their own satellite with a specific (albeit small) payload. In the age of New Space, wherein more and more private entities are funding and achieving their own space ventures, nanosatellites are doing their part by lowering the barriers to entry and making space more accessible for businesses and individuals.

The miniaturisation of electronics means that even working within the confines of a 10cm x 10cm x 10cm unit – as is the case with a CubeSat – there is enough room for just one or two units to carry a workable payload. Using off-the-shelf components means that spectrometers, battery arrays, and all kinds of communication and data systems can be integrated without needing to develop the parts themselves from the ground up.

How big is a nanosatellite?

Nanosatellites comprise a specific range of small satellites that weigh between 1kg and 10kg. Satellite types are organised according to mass, and there are picosatellites which are even small than nanosats, weighing less than 1kg.

‘Small’ is a relative term when talking about satellite mass, as small satellites can still weigh as much as 500kg and classify as a ‘minisatellite’ according to standard classification.

Components of a nanosatellite

Nanosatellites may be compact and simple compared to their conventional counterparts but they still need a certain level of sophistication in their components. These include:

Onboard computer

The onboard computer (OBC) of a satellite handles many tasks, such as processing telecommands and telemetry, synchronising onboard time, and detecting failures. With an onboard computer comes the need for onboard software, and this is what truly controls the nanosatellite’s functions.

Since nanosatellites make use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts, it follows that a COTS software solution would be equally as useful. Innovative solutions, such as Flight Software Development Kits, allow for nanosatellite flight software that can be configured according to the needs of a mission using pre-validated components.

This ultimately means that a nanosatellite can be put together with readily available parts, both physical and virtual, reducing the time and complexity of development and getting the final stages of a project on track faster and more reliably.

As the ‘brain’ of the satellite, the OBC and the software that powers it cannot be dismissed.


Nanosatellites need to be able to power themselves in orbit, and there are some advanced components readily available to both hold and harvest that power.

Battery arrays exist in forms just several millimetres thick and can hold the power that a nanosat needs for months into years. Thermal bus technology, which typically aims to redistribute heat around the spacecraft to prevent overheating and freezing, can also be used to reclaim the self-generated heat of the satellite and use it.

Solar panels and power systems allow nanosatellites to gather the strong levels of solar energy available beyond Earth’s lower atmosphere and distribute it to relevant outputs. Nanosat solar arrays typically possess around 30% cell efficiency, helped by the lack of factors that Earth-based panels need to account for such as cloud coverage and time of day.


The payload of a satellite is what makes it so suited to its job. In essence, it is the reason for putting a satellite into orbit in the first place.

Miniaturisation has particularly benefitted nanosatellites in this regard, as payloads like cameras have been scaled down manyfold and save equipment costs whilst still retaining incredible picture quality. With the quickening competition in New Space, incentives are rising for payload components to become more affordable and accessible.

How much does a nanosatellite cost?

Nanosatellites cost a fraction of conventional satellites. Conventional satellites can cost well over US$500 million, whereas a nanosatellite can cost one-thousandth of that to build and launch into orbit.

Access to components and software can lower than cost even further, making nanosatellites the ideal spacecraft of choice for certain private entities.

Future of nanosatellites

Nanosatellites’ competition with conventional satellites is carving them out as an attractive prospect for future space missions.

NASA has recently proven that they may have applications beyond lower Earth orbits with their Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission, which saw two CubeSats flying independently all the way to Mars. If small satellites can be built using COTS components and make their way to other planets, the argument for conventional satellite usage may be somewhat thinner in the near future.

However, one of the major challenges for the future of nanosatellites is the sustainability of the satellites themselves, which currently aren’t intended to last a long time before decaying in Earth’s atmosphere or using up their available resources. Bodies like the European Space Agency stress that operators who put their own nanosatellites into orbit must be responsible for cleaning up after themselves, as well as ensuring their satellites present as little risk to other missions as possible.

New Space will mean more investors putting their projects into space, so regulating the practices by which they do so will be of vital importance in the coming years.

Off-the-shelf software for nanosatellites

COTS components don’t need to be cheaply-made or basic, and the same applies to satellite software. Bright Ascension’s Flight Software Development Kit is simple to use and ready to fulfil your nanosatellite’s mission with its library of pre-validated software components. Take full control of your satellite and ensure the success of your mission without a huge upfront investment.

To learn more about COTS flight software, contact us today.