There was a time when building your own satellite and having it placed into orbit would have been a wild dream. Now it is extremely possible, but still not trivial. A CubeSat is a very small satellite that can hitch a ride with a bigger satellite or get tossed out of a friendly space station. This week’s issue of The Orbital Index has a very good overview of what all is required. It also contains a great selection of links to get more information.
At first glance, it seems like it would be pretty simple. A computer, a battery, and some solar cells. Well, you probably want to hear back from it, so then you need a radio. Oh, and an antenna. But the antenna can’t stick out during launch so you need a way to deploy it. If you want the satellite to point somewhere, you’ll need things for that, too. Some CubeSats even have tiny thrusters to affect their orbit.
We found it interesting that about 1,000 CubeSats have been launched as of early this year. Only about 100 have failed to deploy successfully and most of those were destroyed in launch failures. Who builds these? Before 2013, most CubeSats were built by schools. Today, the majority originate with commercial or amateur entities.
There’s even a searchable database of small satellites available. You’ll see that CubeSats use a U designator to indicate their size. Each U is a cube measuring 100mm — about 4 inches — on a side. So a 2U satellite would be the same size as two 1U satellites next to each other.
Image Credit: NASA Ames Research Center