What if you could join the next satellite launch? Or, as South African students have done, float outside the Earth’s atmosphere on a balloon? Of course, not physically as some galactic hitchhiker, but by peering through the lens of a satellite no bigger than a laptop computer. That is exactly what students, small country space agencies, citizen science groups, start-ups, and hobbyists have been doing with CubeSats, a type of satellite.
What are CubeSats?
CubeSats are a type of satellite that was developed in 1999 with the goal of making space science more accessible to students. Unlike previously prominent satellites, which were large and expensive, CubeSats are small and inexpensive.
CubeSats are the boxy diminutive cousins of the Hubble and Landsat, with a standardized sizing system based on a 10 cm3 unit. Their design has made them especially influential in terms of increasing participation in space, providing hands-on educational opportunities, and enabling innovative, exploratory space research.
Widespread Availability and Benefits of CubeSats
CubeSats are now more widely available to users outside of government agencies and commercial industries, which have traditionally led in satellite development and launch. It is all possible because of the development of the modern CubeSat Kit. These kits have ensured that universities, small country space agencies, citizen science groups, start-ups, and even hobbyists are among the new users.
CubeSats’ role in broadening participation in, and thus expanding access to, space exploration has a number of scientific benefits, including:
Improved Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education:
CubeSats give students hands-on experience in aerospace engineering. Dr Zac Manchester described the benefit as “a different level of engagement [from students] when the thing you build is going into space” in addition to being a professional development opportunity (Building Blocks for Better Science).
Development of New Satellite Research Methods:
Standard satellites are expensive and time-consuming to construct. As a result, they are typically used for low-risk missions. Because of their low cost and quick development, CubeSats can be used for exploratory, high-risk research, such as NASA’s studies of bacteria genetics in space and deep space exploration.
CubeSats allow new users from various disciplines to contribute their ideas and unique skill sets to the design of small satellites. Solutions to challenges in space and on Earth can be faster and more creative with more and more diverse participants.
Many space organizations have also come into existence as a result of this innovation, that are now working to further accelerate the innovation. A prime example of this is the KSF Space foundation which is a leading name in the production of CubeSat kits for a variety of small satellite development missions.
The accessibility of CubeSats gives members of the public more control over the research questions they address. Citizen scientists, for example, use CubeSats to conduct space experiments of interest, such as those that expand our understanding of Earth. The ability of the public to participate in and shape research agendas can strengthen the bond between science and society.
CubeSats have increased access for many different groups of people, allowing new players with new ideas and research to participate in space exploration that would otherwise go unexplored. However, the growth of CubeSats exposes current challenges and creates new ones.