Ask anyone about satellites and chances are a big, rocket-sized piece of metal floating in space will spring to mind. As it turns out, a satellite does not necessarily have to be the size of a rocket. Nowadays, space engineers – or even schools, organisations or university students – are able to make miniaturised satellites known as nanosatellites, which are a classification of small satellites that weigh between 1-10kg. CubeSats, more specifically, are a type of standardised nanosatellite that follow design specifications created by Cal Poly and Stanford University in the US. These satellites usually weigh about 1.33kg and can be as small as a Rubik’s cube – that is, with dimensions of no more than 10x10x10cm!

CubeSats deployed from the ISS in 2012. Credit: Matthew Reyes/Flickr.

The history of CubeSats can be traced back to 1999. In an attempt to provide an educational platform to build a relatively simple, cheap and easy-to-build satellites, Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University and Robert J. Twiggs came up with their brainchild: CubeSat. The two aerospace experts foresaw that the advent of microelectronics would require satellites of smaller sizes.

Compared to a normal-size satellite which costs millions of dollars to launch, technological simplifications within CubeSats allow startups and universities relatively uncomplicated access to space. This means that anyone can build a CubeSat!

CubeSats can be launched from the International Space Station or as a secondary payload— essentially, hitching a ride on other rockets that have space for them (no pun intended).

What can something that small be used for?

These tiny CubeSats can provide many useful functions. They are mostly used for observation and communication purposes. Just like standard-size atmospheric satellites launched into orbit in the Earth’s atmosphere, Cubesats operate on the same principle. They can be equipped with high-resolution cameras and remote sensors to observe the Earth, which can then provide up-to-date images of land use, weather conditions and environmental events such as storms, flash floods, and volcanic eruptions. As recently seen with the recent hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, forecasting extreme weather events can be crucial to saving lives.

CubeSats over Earth, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: Phil Plait/Flickr (Original: JAXA, NASA).

In addition, they can also be used to demonstrate new technologies. For instance, instruments that require testing in the harsh environment of space can be installed on a CubeSat. Such an instrument would need to be able to operate in vacuum as well as tolerate high levels of cosmic radiation and extreme temperatures before it could be utilised in a more complex mission.

CubeSats might also play a part in interplanetary missions. One example is NASA’s InSight mission which aims to land a robot in Mars in 2018. The mission will make use of a pair of CubeSats, known as MarCO (Mars Cube One). If successful, this will allow quick communications relay between NASA and the Mars lander!

The process of developing a CubeSat itself is a great educational opportunity for university students interested in a career in the space industry. Imagine having something you build going up into space – talk about a project that is truly out of this world!


Written by: Jethro Hasoloan and Stella Stella
SCIE90012 project interns, University of Melbourne