redOrbit MIT exclusive: Why CubeSats are cool

John Hopton for – @Johnfinitum

CubeSats may not yet be widely known, but they are a game-changer in satellite technology. Remarkably, in the near future there will not only be many more people who have heard of them, but many more people who own them. It’s becoming much easier for anyone and everyone to play around in space.

RedOrbit talked to MIT’s Kerri Cahoy who explained the exciting new technology to us and what it means for the future… and why there are two different kinds of weather. (What?!)

“CubeSats are miniature satellites and range in size from the size of a coffee cup to the size of shoebox,” the planetary scientist explained. “They are popular now for two reasons. 1) They can be tucked into rockets and taken into space pretty cheaply, and 2) We’ve been miniaturizing our electronics and our mechanical devices for spacecraft so we can actually do something with these mini satellites.”

So what is her involvement?

“I’m interested in weather sensors from space. There are two kinds of weather; the first is weather we normally think of on our planet such as hurricanes, rain, clouds, snow and precipitation. But I’m also interested in the other kind of weather, which comes from our sun. There are actually energetic particles that come from our sun and they can damage our satellites because they cause impacts on our ground power systems. The Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field protect us from this a little bit, but we still need to monitor these big storms that come at us from the sun.”

She added: “They can cause power outages, they can interfere with our satellite infrastructure, including cable TV, for example, and other kinds of media distribution.”

CubeSats help by giving us early warning and can teach us how to tailor our electronics to be more resilient.

The big idea

“CubeSats are a great way to get experiments and tests up into space quickly. They are also proving to be really useful to get observations which are much more frequent than one big satellite,” said Cahoy.

This big swarm of mini-satellites can really get around, and because they are inexpensive. Cahoy explains, “You can change out your instruments, your cameras, and your weather sensors pretty quickly, rather than waiting ten or twenty years for the next big satellite to go up.”

“People like to talk about how our cell phones now have more computational power than was used for the Apollo program. Things go quickly on the ground with electronics and innovation but less so in space. The computer in your spacecraft could be completely outdated, but you’re not going to change it because it took so long to develop.” Not so with CubeSats.

Anyone can play in space

The compact satelites are another example of how the use of space is no longer limited to government agencies. CubeSats have been built by start-ups and crowdfunders, and private industries are using them in all sorts of ways.

“Maybe you have people who are looking at the parking lot activity of their stores, or traffic direction to help with urban planning. They help farmers with planting, they help with boundary disputes and shipping tracking,” Cahoy says. “There are a bunch of things you can do with pretty straightforward approaches to collecting imagery and data from space.”

CubeSats may be easy for people to build, but getting them into space is currently less easy.

“One way to do it is to hitch a ride with NASA when they send up cargo spaceships to astronauts on the International Space Station,” Cahoy explains. “They get loaded into a spring-loaded box and sprung into space.” They can also be attached to actual rockets, getting you to the exact right place to orbit around the Earth.

CubeSats are a great way of testing new miniature technology and new devices at lower risk, and then if they work, they can be transferred to larger satellites. This may not happen if designers had to take the risk of going straight to a traditional satellite, which is greater.

3D printed satellites

Kerri Cahoy concluded: “The technologies to build CubeSats are actually pretty easy to get hold of; some of the parts you can order online. This is very reachable for most people who are tech savvy and want to innovate.”

“The other thing that’s kinda cool is that 3D printing is being used for CubeSats. Being able to go ahead and think of something you want to put on your sat and put in a drawing, and send it to a 3D printer to print a part of your satellite, or even your whole satellite. It’s really fun.”

We wholeheartedly agree. Maybe a redOrbit Cubesat is in the near future?


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