Countries from the UK to the US to India are building them. In the UK, Glasgow recently saw the launch of its 100th. But what exactly is a CubeSat, those cute little boxes, uber-multifunctional and currently all the rage in the space industry?
Put simply, CubeSats are a type of nano (i.e. really really small) satellite, which essentially means they are teeny tiny satellites. If the word tiny is a bit vague for you (“small” in the space industry can mean hundreds of kilograms), here are some hard stats: a one unit (1U) CubeSat is a 10 cm cube. A 1U CubeSat usually weigh around 1 kg or a little more.
A few of these now can be stacked up and already 3U, 6U and 12U CubeSats have been launched successfully. In fact, since the year 2000, around 300 CubeSats have been launched, some from the International Space Station and more missions are currently being planned.
The advantage of CubeSats over traditional bigger satellites is enormous. Initially conceptualised to let university students and academics have a cost-effective option to explore satellite design, the full potential of CubeSats has now been realised for space-exploration, testing of cutting-edge technology for their space-readiness, collection of space data and satellite imagery, and testing of space-based quantum encryption among other things. CubeSats can also be used to augment larger satellite missions as well as for use as mini space laboratories by universities and pharma companies. Due to their super low cost, the teams required to build them can be small and both manufacturing and deployment times can be short. They are slowly becoming invaluable for a range of space applications.
Below is a link to a video which shows the UK Space Agency’s first CubeSat UKube-1, built by Clyde Space with some team members now at Craft Prospect. Enjoy!