A little more than 15 years ago, a pair of researchers were fiddling around with the best way to give students a shot at putting experiments into space, and they decided on a simple box. Jordi Puig-Suari of Cal Poly and Bob Twiggs of Stanford University took the available technology at the time — a small solar array, a smartphone-sized processor, and a battery — and figured they could get it inside a 10-centimeter cube. They began looking at simple ways to simply attach their small satellites to existing rockets, figuring the tiny additional weight wouldn’t be a drag on the launches that go up every week around the world. And they built a set of simple standards that any group of students could follow in order to build a satellite that the people doing the launches might accept. Soon, they had invented the CubeSat.
The first CubeSat went up on a Russian rocket in 2003. More than 240 CubeSats launched in 2017 alone. CubeSats — or SmallSats, as they’re sometimes called — are now the work of everyone from private companies to high-school science classes.
At first, the cubes seemed to small to do much more than go up, beep a bit, and occasionally report a location. “What changed my view was when the National Science Foundation put out an RFP for $1 million for a cubesat that could do space weather,” Puig-Suari says. “They expected eight proposals, three or four good ideas. Instead, they got over 30 proposals, and perhaps 20 great ideas.”
“There were all these university people saying ‘I can shrink my sensors, I can make this happen.’”
Then researchers figured out they could stack the cubes together, and then network separate CubeSats, so they act as a single enormous sensor. In 2017, satellite company Planet put 88 “Dove” satellites — each a stack of four cubes — into orbit to work together to image the entire land surface of the Earth at least once per day, the first time any private company has been able to do it. Other projects will offer an early-warning system for radiation bursts from the sun, or image crops on a national scale for countries that in the past haven’t been able to afford a God’s-eye view of their own farmland.
There are concerns that with so many tiny satellites in orbit, the risk of collisions with or among them is enormous. A paper released in 2017 by Owen Brown of Scientic Systems Company at an annual gathering of CubeSat developers estimated an average of more than 1700 CubeSats entering orbit each year, and urged developers to adopt standards including an orbital path that will cause the satellites to dispose of themselves — tip out of orbit and burn up in the atmosphere — after a 25-year lifespan.
But the potential of CubeSats hasn’t been reached yet. With all the major launch agencies — NASA, the Department of Defense, and the National Reconnaissance Office — adopting the standard and accepting hitchhiking satellites on their rockets — more and more are bound for orbit. CubeSats have begun incorporating propulsion systems that would allow them to guide themselves into optimal orbits for earth observation and maybe even space exploration. And at a price of no more than $80,000 to get a ride to space, it means that a college student could begin working on a rocket her freshman year, and see it go to space before she graduates.