CubeSats are tiny satellites with a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms per unit and often use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure.
CubeSats float in low Earth orbit (LEO), which has an altitude between 160 km to 2,000 km, and orbit the Earth roughly every 90 minutes.
Just like any satellite, CubeSats are custom built to the specific requirements of their mission and have at least three things in common:
- The antenna and radio communication system, which sends and receives information to and from Earth.
- The power source, like a solar panel or simply a battery.
- The computer, which executes instructions to ensure proper functioning of the satellite.
The main cubic structure is made of aluminum and serves to hold the above components along with others such as cameras, sensors or scientific payloads. In addition, antennas and solar panels can be installed on the exterior of the structure.
The popularity of CubeSats in recent years can be attributed to several factors, such as:
- The can be built in a shorter time than full-sized satellites
- They are less expensive that larger satellites
- Simple, standard parts are available off-the-shelf
- They require a design for short mission; no need to use thermal blankets
- CubeSats leave no space debris;they burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry
NASA has been particularly active in CubeSats design and research objectives.
NASA runs the extensive Small Spacecraft Technology Program as well as the CubeSat Launch Initiative. Previously selected CubeSats have studied near-Earth objects, space weather, Earth’s atmosphere and much more.
The initial interplanetary CubeSat Mars mission (known as MarCO to NASA), consisted of two tiny CubeSats that hitchhiked along with the agency’s InSight lander that reached the Red Planet in November 2018. The mission ended in January 2019, but was considered an excellent test of how CubeSats can serve as tag-alongs on future missions, giving engineers up-to-the-minute feedback during a landing.
Want to learn more? Tonex offers Introductions to CubeSat, a 2-day course covering the basic concepts and processes for CubeSat analysis, design and developments. Participants will learn about the CubeSats or miniature satellites that have been used exclusively in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and can be used for exploring and interplanetary missions.
Please contact us for more information.