Not much bigger than a Rubik’s Cube

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. CubeSats are built to standard dimensions of 4 in x 4 in x 4 in. They typically weigh less than (3 lbs). NASA’s CubeSats are deployed from a Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD.

The P-POD is a standard deployment system that
ensures all CubeSat developers conform to common physical requirements. The P-POD
plays a critical role as the interface between the launch vehicle and CubeSats.

It utilizes a tubular design and can hold up to 12 in x 4 in x 4 in of deployable hardware. The most common configuration is three picosatellites of equal size; however, CubeSats of
different lengths can be accommodated in the same P-POD. Started in 1999, the CubeSat program was a joint effort between Cal Poly and Stanford University to develop a new class of picosatellites: the CubeSat standard. This standard is defined in the CubeSat Design Specification (CDS).

It includes information regarding nominal
dimensions of the standard, the dimension tolerances, acceptable materials, the reference coordinate system, accessible areas once inside the P-POD, and other general information.

I recently listened to the “Shirtloads of Science” podcast with Dr. Karl where they discussed the CubeSat INSPIRE-2, which had problems during its mission. They go over just what caused the malfunction and the efforts made to correct the problem. It is two parts, about 30 minutes each.

Professors Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs wanted their students to design, build, test, and operate a low-cost, low-mass (for reduced launch costs) satellite in space, within a timeframe of a year or two. The first CubeSats were launched in June 2003, and there are now currently 461 CubeSat missions in space.

The communications system (COM) is severely limited by the amount of power available, which is usually around 2W. Compared to Boeing’s 702SP Spacecraft, which uses a Xenon Electrostatic ion thruster system (XIPS), operates in the low-to mid-power range of satellites, and has three to eight kilowatts of power, CubeSats’ power is exponentially less.

CubeSats use radio-communication systems in VHF, UHF, F-, S-, C- and X-band. The satellite uses an antenna, usually deployed once in orbit to help with communication. Antennas range from commercial measuring tape to more complicated inflatable dish antennas. The electrical power system (EPS) consists of solar panels and batteries.

Solar panels hold solar cells that convert the solar light from the sun to electricity. Batteries take up a lot of mass and volume on the already tightly packed CubeSat. A major design challenge is placing the solar panels, either on the sides of the CubeSat itself or having to deploy solar panels.

Having deployable panels adds solar cell area but also an extra mechanical complexity. For the panels to deploy, they need a burn wire release mechanism (the wire being fishing line), and every mechanical system adds the possibility of failure. If the panel does not deploy properly, the CubeSat will not have any power and even if everything else is functioning properly, the CubeSat will fail due to the lack of power. The attitude determination and control system (ADCS) controls the orientation of the CubeSat with respect to an inertial frame of reference and includes reaction wheels, magnetorquers, thrusters, star trackers, sun, and Earth sensors, angular rate sensors, and GPS receivers and antennas.

This complex system is needed because when the satellite is first deployed, for example via NanoRacks from the International Space Station, it is tumbling. Some CubeSats can operate in this state, but others require pointing accuracy and location knowledge.

They can be quite inexpensive to build and launch, in many cases within the budget of university science and engineering departments. They are less complex and smaller than the typical satellite launched into space.

In addition, under the right circumstances, they can be built with commercial off-the-shelf components (COTS) rather than expensive, radiation-hardened electronics. Even these components can survive space radiation for a limited amount of time, long enough for missions of short duration. MarCo, short for Mars Cube One, was the first interplanetary mission to use a class of mini-spacecraft called CubeSats.

The MarCOs — nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after characters from a Pixar film — served as communications relays during InSight’s November 2018 Mars landing, beaming back data at each stage of its descent to the Martian surface in near-real-time, along with InSight’s first image. WALL-E sent back stunning images of Mars as well, while EVE performed some simple radio science.

Mission Objectives (so far)
  • Amateur radio
  • Tether research
  • Earthquake detection
  • Space Communication Research
  • Biological research
  • Separation system demonstration and Avalanche Photo Diode sensor experiment
  • Demonstration of commercial off-the-shelf components and taking photos
  • ADCS system and a gamma ray detector
  • Technology demonstrator for formation flying
  • Measured the effect of antifungal countermeasures on yeast strains in microgravity. ~96 hour experiment
  • Upper atmospheric science
  • Reaction wheel technology qualification
  • Ionospheric research
  • Life sciences
  • Developing a rapid-response satellite capability to enable many different mission type
  • Communications
  • Micro-imaging system, near infrared camera to observe vegetation, GPS Receiver to aid tracking
  • Magnetospheric Research
  • Radiation effects on bipolar-transistor-based circuits
  • Earth imaging and space environment measuring
  • Deployable powered boom for gravity gradient libration study
  • Ku-band communication, prototype star tracker and deployable membrane technology demonstration
  • Space weather research
  • Double AIS system for tracking ships in Arctic regions.
  • ongoing NASA project, part of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, of building nanosatellites using unmodified consumer-grade off-the-shelf smartphones
  • Space test of the electric solar wind sail
  • Allow general public to use the satellite sensors for their own creative purposes.
  • Testing navigation components to be used in a follow up 3U ion drive CubeSat to the Moon
  • Orbital debris and small asteroids monitoring
  • Astronomy/Planetary science
  • Mapping of Kenya’s land mass, monitoring of the coastline and helping combat illegal logging activities
  • Monitoring carbon, humidity, and temperature levels in Costa Rican forests
  • Firefight
  • Test of ferromagnetic fluid reaction wheel



Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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