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CubeSats are a class of satellites that are small and low cost.

CubeSats were developed in 1999 with the intent of making space science accessible to education. Their design has made them particularly impactful by broadening participation in space, providing hands-on educational opportunities, and enabling innovative, exploratory space research.

CubeSats have 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. They 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.

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.

Several companies provide CubeSat primary structures (often called frames or chassis). Most are machined from aluminum alloy 6061 or 7075 and are designed with several mounting locations for components to allow flexibility in spacecraft configuration.

CubeSats are put into orbit by deployers on the International Space Station, or launched as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle. As of August 2021, more than 1600 CubeSats have been launched and more than 90 have been destroyed in launch failures.

To release the CubeSats in orbit, Cal Poly designed the Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD for short. This lightweight metal box attaches to an expendable rocket’s upper stage to isolate the CubeSats from the primary satellite and eject the CubeSats in orbit after the primary satellite has launched.

The electrical power system (EPS) consists of solar panels and batteries. Solar panels hold solar cells that convert the solar light from the sun to electricity. Batteries take up a lot of mass and volume on the already tightly packed CubeSat. A major design challenge is placing the solar panels, either on the sides of the CubeSat itself, or having deploying solar panels.

In L-band, CubeSats can take advantage of legacy communications networks such as Globalstar and Iridium by using network-specific transponders to relay information to and from Earth. These networks remove dependence on dedicated ground station equipment.

A CubeSat may remain in orbit for up to 25 years – which may be too long, considering the increasing concern over space junk.

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.

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