CubeSats, small cubic satellites measuring as little as 10cm X 10cm, are gaining fast momentum amongst universities, schools, societies and space startups.
We’ve already seen the Ardusats, which were cubesats, launched a few weeks ago. They are some of the first ever satellites to be controlled by open-hardware platform Arduino, and allow almost anyone to carry out their own scientific experiments with them from down here on Earth.
With a lot of the cubesat, or ‘smallsat’, hardware being standardised and the small size of the satellites, building and launching them is becoming ever easier for the ‘regular person’. Many grassroots space companies and educational institutions are utilising the technology for basic scientific experiments like taking pictures from space, sending radio communications, performing atmospheric research, and as a test platform for future technology.
So how are cubesats changing the satellite industry?
Richard Osborne, chair of the British Interplanetary Society Technical Committee and all round rocket scientist, told CBR that :
"The main role cubesats have currently is in lowering the barriers to entry, so whereas previously an educational establishment or startup would have to raise a lot of capital to fund the spacecraft development costs as well as the launch costs, now cubesat kits enable the actual spacecraft to be built for under £10,000, and the launch costs can be shared between multiple cubesats on the same launch."
This is a major benefit for educational establishments and offers a unique way to train up new scientists and engineers with actual hands on project experience."
Several UK companies are currently involved with exciting cubesat projects, and are in some cases pushing the technology further than anyone else in the world. With the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Sprite, funded by Kicksat, people are able to design, build and test very small satellites called ‘Sprites’ that can be launched in Low Earth Orbit for just a few hundred pounds each. They’re the size of a couple postage stamps and are powered by baby solar cells, a radio transceiver and a microcontroller with memory and sensors.
A Sprite ‘spacecraft’
"The potential is significant, and because the much smaller size means reduced costs all round, it has enabled the BIS to get involved to deploy a small fleet or swarm of these postage stamp satellites, and hopefully act as risk reduction for industry," said Richard.
The ‘Sprites’ are scheduled to launch later this year, but that’s not the only British involvement in smallsats.
The ‘Pocket Spacecraft’ project features a small, "thin-film" spacecraft that also doubles up as lander. Thousands will be sent into space by what Richard called an "Interplanetary CubeSat Mothership" which will fly to a destination such as the Moon and to "deploy the pocket spacecraft to orbit the destination and to land, all the while communicating with each other, and relaying data back to the Earth."
Imagine leaflets being dropped from a plane, fluttering down to earth, and you’re almost there.
"Pocket Spacecraft is a citizen space exploration project to give thousands of private individuals the opportunity to be involved in the exploration of space – hands on, " said Michael Johnson of Pocket Spacecraft.
"Pocket Spacecraft is helping the UK lead the world in this innovative class of interplanetary space mission."
Photograph of a Pocket Spacecraft: Thin-Film Scout prototype
Another British company, Surrey Satellite Technology, are already world-leaders in smallsat technology. Having worked on the technology for over 25 years now, SSTL has achieved results in areas otherwise thought impossible.
"This includes radar smallsats, earth observation smallsats and disaster monitoring smallsats. In fact, even recently, Surrey Satellite were pushing technology by launching the world’s first "phonesat", a satellite carrying a smartphone (named STraND-1), to show what was possible", said Richard Osborne.
But what can cubesats do for businesses, and how is this technology going to change the way we analyse Earth from space in the future?
Richard told me that he thinks cubesats can carry out valuable scientific work, and that the BIS have carried out studies showing that valuable scientific work can be achieved by spacecraft much smaller than cubesats too.
"These small spacecraft can carry out cost effective space missions, whilst offering another opportunity to build up the UK skills base through hands on practical development."
In terms of businesses, the low cost of smallsat projects open up the technology to a whole new range of potential users, along with the ability for a higher amount of launches than a regular satellite.
"There are several ways; firstly, the much lower cost entry barrier enables a wider range of businesses to be involved, secondly, smallsats can often be built and launched more rapidly than a large satellite, and this trend will only continue, so it offers the opportunity for businesses to get a return on investment or a return of data faster than previously, thirdly, a larger number of smallsats will generate a wealth of data that will need to be analysed. This is another growing business area in the space sector.
"The UK already has a strong satellite sector with companies such as EADS-Astrium manufacturing large satellites and Surrey satellite manufacturing small satellites. This really is a manufacturing success story to shout about. The UK already plays an important global role here, and continued success in this area can only strengthen this role.
"The BIS role in all of this is as a think tank for industry and government, pointing the way for strategic direction, as well as proposing, examining, fostering and facilitating new ideas."