Sunday, March 05, 2017

Microsatellites: Science CubeSats get smarter

The tiny modular satellites known as CubeSats (picture a square Kleenex(TM) box of metal and silicon) have opened up the universe to countless organizations, companies, countries, and schools. No longer is a space program a major undertaking by a large government: it's a high school class with basic electronics skills and a credit card.  Companies like Pumpkin sell low-cost kits that users can customize. CubeSats are often assembled into three-unit (3U) satellites, and 6Us and 12Us are appearing.  CubeSats have cost as little as $40,000 for the kit and $85,000 for launch, with labor and instruments extra. NASA has programs like the CubeSat Challenge to help educational institutions partner with the agency, just one of many such government-supported efforts.
At the same time, CubeSats are getting smarter. This 10cm-cube may hold just a radio beacon (a common first endeavor for an educational institution,)  It may have a web camera (one I worked on for my company had a camera included).  Or it may have very sophisticated scientific instruments. Agencies like NASA are making use of these satellites to supplement more expensive missions.
Morehead State University's CXBN-2 is a good example of a sophisticated 3U CubeSat. In a space the size of a breadloaf (plus unfolding solar panels) it packs instruments to measure the Cosmic X-Ray Background of the universe. The first dedicated X-ray astronomy satellite, Uhuru, launched in 1973 and was considered a very small satellite with a dry mass over 145kg. The CBXN-2 weighs 5.7.
Smaller and smarter - it's happening in space. Ad budgets tighten, more agencies will be looking to use these little wonders on planetary and even interplanetary missions.

The top end of CubeSats' NASA's 6U SkyFire lunar imager 

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