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10 Things: CubeSats — Going Farther

10 Things: CubeSats — Going Farther

Now that the MarCOs — a pair of briefcase-sized
interplanetary CubeSats — seem to have reached their limit far beyond
Mars, we’re looking forward to an expanding era of small, versatile and
powerful space-based science machines.

Here are ten ways we’re pushing the limits of miniaturized
technology to see  just how far it can take us.


1. MarCO: The Farthest (So Far)

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.

All of this was achieved with experimental technology that cost a
fraction of what most space missions do: $18.5 million provided by
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which built
the CubeSats.

WALL-E was last heard from on Dec. 29; EVE, on Jan. 4. Based on
trajectory calculations, WALL-E is currently more than 1 million miles
(1.6 million kilometers) past Mars; EVE is farther, almost 2 million
miles (3.2 million kilometers) past Mars.


MarCO-B took these images as it approached Mars in November 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2. What Are CubeSats?

CubeSats were pioneered by California Polytechnic State
University in 1999 and quickly became popular tools for students seeking
to learn all aspects of spacecraft design and development.

Today, they are opening up space research to public and
private entities like never before. With off-the-shelf parts and a
compact size that allows them to hitch a ride with other missions — they
can, for example, be ejected from the International Space Station,
up to six at a time — CubeSats have slashed the cost of satellite
development, opening up doors to test new instruments as well as to
create constellations of satellites working together.

CubeSats can be flown in swarms, capturing simultaneous,
multipoint measurements with identical instruments across a large area.
Sampling entire physical systems in this way would drive forward our
ability to understand the space environment around us, in the same way
multiple weather sensors help us understand global weather systems.

Ready to get started? Check out NASA’s CubeSats 101 Guide.


Engineer Joel Steinkraus uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one
of the Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft at NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

3. Measuring Up

The size and cost of spacecraft vary depending on the
application; some are the size of a pint of ice cream while others, like
the Hubble Space Telescope, are as big as a school bus.

  • Small spacecraft (SmallSats) generally have a mass less than 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and are about the size of a large kitchen fridge.
  • CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that use a
    standard size and form factor.  The standard CubeSat size uses a “one
    unit” or “1U” measuring 10x10x10 centimeters (or about 4x4x4 inches) and is extendable to larger sizes: 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U.

The Sojourner rover (seen here on Mars in 1997) is an example of small
technology that pioneered bigger things. Generations of larger rovers
are being built on its success.

4. A Legacy of Small Pathfinders

Not unlike a CubeSat, NASA’s first spacecraft — Explorer 1 — was
a small, rudimentary machine. It launched in 1958 and made the first
discovery in outer space, the Van Allen radiation belts that surround
Earth. It was the birth of the U.S. space program.

In 1997, a mini-rover named Sojourner rolled onto Mars, a
trial run for more advanced rovers such as NASA’s Spirit, Opportunity
and Curiosity.

Innovation often begins with pathfinder technology, said
Jakob Van Zyl, director of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Once engineers prove something can be
done, science missions follow.


5. Testing in Space

NASA is continually developing new technologies —
technologies that are smaller than ever before, components that could
improve our measurements, on-board data processing systems that
streamline data retrievals, or new methods for gathering observations.
Each new technology is thoroughly tested in a lab, sometimes on
aircraft, or even at remote sites across the world. But the space
environment is different than Earth. To know how something is going to
operate in space, testing in space is the best option.

Sending something unproven to orbit has traditionally
been a risky endeavor, but CubeSats have helped to change that. The
diminutive satellites typically take less than two years to build. CubeSats are often a secondary payload on many rocket launches, greatly reducing cost. These hitchhikers can be deployed from a rocket or sent to the International Space Station and deployed from orbit.

Because of their quick development time and easy access
to space, CubeSats have become the perfect platform for demonstrating
how a new technological advancement will perform in orbit.


RainCube is a mini weather satellite, no bigger than a shoebox, that
will measure storms. It’s part of several new NASA experiments to track
storms from space with many small satellites, instead of individual,
large ones. Credit: UCAR

6. At Work in Earth Orbit

A few recent examples from our home world:

a satellite no bigger than a suitcase, is a prototype for a possible
fleet of similar CubeSats  that could one day help monitor severe
storms, lead to improving the accuracy of weather forecasts and track
climate change over time.

tested instruments for their ability to make space-based measurements
of the small, frozen crystals that make up ice clouds. Like other
clouds, ice clouds affect Earth’s energy budget by either reflecting or
absorbing the Sun’s energy and by affecting the emission of heat from
Earth into space. Thus, ice clouds are key variables in weather and
climate models.


Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 for the NASA ELaNa19 mission. Credit: Trevor Mahlmann/Rocket Lab

7. First Dedicated CubeSat Launch

A series of new CubeSats is now in space, conducting a
variety of scientific investigations and technology demonstrations
following a Dec. 17, 2018 launch from New Zealand — the first time
CubeSats have launched for NASA on a rocket designed specifically for small payloads.

This mission included 10 Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 payloads, selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative:

  • CubeSat Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs) — High energy particle measurement in Earth’s radiation belt
  • Simulation-to-Flight 1 (STF-1) — Software condensing to support CubeSat implementations
  • Advanced Electrical Bus (ALBus) — Advances in solar arrays and high capacity batteries
  • CubeSat Handling Of Multisystem Precision Time Transfer (CHOMPTT) — Navigation plans for exo-planetary implementation
  • CubeSail — Deployment and control of a solar sail blade
  • NMTSat — Magnetic field, high altitude plasma density
  • Rsat — Manipulation of robotic arms
  • Ionospheric Scintillation Explorer (ISX) — Plasma fluctuations in the upper atmosphere
  • Shields-1 — Radiation shielding
  • DaVinci — High School to Grade School STEM education

8. The Little CubeSat That Could

CubeSat technology is still in its infancy, with mission
success rates hovering near 50 percent. So, a team of scientists and
engineers set out on a quest. Their goal? To build a more resilient
CubeSat — one that could handle the inevitable mishaps that bedevil any
spacecraft, without going kaput.

They wanted a little CubeSat that could.

They got to work in 2014 and, after three years of development, Dellingr was ready to take flight.

Read the Full Story: Dellingr: The Little CubeSat That Could


Artist’s concept of Lunar Flashlight. Credit: NASA

9. Going Farther

There are a handful of proposed NASA missions could take CubeSat technology farther:

  • CUVE
    would travel to Venus to investigate a longstanding mystery about the
    planet’s atmosphere using ultraviolet-sensitive instruments and a novel,
    carbon-nanotube light-gathering mirror.
  • Lunar Flashlight would use a laser to search for water ice in permanently shadowed craters on the south pole of Earth’s Moon.
  • Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, a SmallSat, would use a solar sail to propel it to do science on asteroids that pass close to Earth.

All three spacecraft would hitch rides to space with other missions, a key advantage of these compact science machines.


Expedition 56 Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor installs the
NanoRacks Cubesat Deployer-14 (NRCSD-14) on the Multipurpose Experiment
Platform inside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. The NRCSD-14 was
then placed in the Kibo airlock and moved outside of the space station
to deploy a variety of CubeSats into Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

10. And We’re Just Getting Started

Even if they’re never revived, the team considers MarCO a spectacular success.

A number of the critical spare parts for each MarCO will be used in
other CubeSat missions. That includes their experimental radios,
antennas and propulsion systems. Several of these systems were provided
by commercial vendors, making it easier for other CubeSats to use them
as well.

More small spacecraft are on the way. NASA is set to launch a variety of new CubeSats in coming years.

“There’s big potential in these small packages,” said John Baker, the
MarCO program manager at JPL. “CubeSats — part of a larger group of
spacecraft called SmallSats — are a new platform for space exploration
affordable to more than just government agencies.”

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