NanoRacks CubeSats photographed after deployment from the ISS by an Expedition 38 crew member. Credit: NASA

What are CubeSats?

Article Updated: 23 Sep , 2016


Can you imagine if space travel was not just reserved to space agencies anymore? What if regular institutions, like universities or technical institutes, were capable of putting their own ships into orbit? Now wouldn’t that be something! Well, the truth is, that day may not be far off.

As it stands, academic institutions are capable of building their own satellites these days for the purpose of conducting their own atmospheric research. It’s what is known as the CubeSat, a miniaturized satellite that’s shaped like a cube (hence the name).

These satellites are small and compact, typically having a volume of exactly one liter (10 cm cube) and weighing no more than 1.33 kilograms. These satellites are also known for typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics components, which is why they are comparably easy to create.

Beginning in 1999, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to help universities worldwide to perform space science and exploration.

The term “CubeSat” was coined to denote nano-satellites that adhere to the standards described in the CubeSat design specifications which were laid out by aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, from the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Stanford University. It has since grown to become an international partnership of over 40 institutes that are developing nano-satellites containing scientific payloads.

Initially, despite their small size, academic institutions were limited in that they were forced to wait, sometimes years, for a launch opportunity. This was remedied to an extent by the development of the Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (otherwise known as the P-POD), by California Polytechnic. P-PODs are mounted to a launch vehicle and carry CubeSats into orbit and deploy them once the proper signal is received from the launch vehicle.

The purpose of this, according to JordiPuig-Suari, was “to reduce the satellite development time to the time frame of a college student’s career and leverage launch opportunities with a large number of satellites.” In short, P-PODs ensure that many CubeSats can be launched at any given time.

Several companies have built CubeSats, including large-satellite-maker Boeing. However, the majority of development comes from academia, with a mixed record of successfully orbited CubeSats and failed missions. Since their inception, CubeSats have been used for countless applications.

For example, they have been used to deploy Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to monitor marine vessels, deploy Earth remote sensors, to test the long term viability of space tethers, as well as conducting biological and radiological experiments.

Within the academic and scientific community, these results are shared and resources are made available by communicating directly with other developers and attending CubeSat workshops. In addition, the CubeSat program benefits private firms and governments by providing a low-cost way of flying payloads in space.

We have written many articles about CubeSat for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Planetary Society to launch three separate solar sails, and here’s a forum discussion about the simple rocket to orbit CubeSats.

If you’d like more info on the CubeSat, check out CubeSat’s official homepage. You can also check a nice article from Wikipedia.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.


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