For decades, exploring space has meant building expensive satellites and rocket systems, but soon, even a grade schooler will be able to do substantial research on the great beyond.
Satellites are shrinking, and thanks to our ability to pack more and more sensors into smaller spaces, the realm of micro-satellites has been born. Commonly referred to as microsats or CubeSats, these tiny little devices can fit in the palm of your hand. Don’t judge tiny satellites by their size, they are packed with temperature sensors, communications technologies, chemical sensors, you name it, and it can be packed into a space the size of 10x10x10 centimeters or less. The one tradeoff for building satellites this small is generally each one has to have a specific purpose, say detecting hydrogen levels. For the most part, these small satellites can only detect and transmit one thing, but according to NASA, that’s not a problem.
Microsats have nudged their way into a gaping hole in the space research fields. Getting to space is expensive. Launching a gigantic satellite that ultimately could malfunction isn’t the way to go anymore in many cases. These tiny satellites can be launched into low-Earth orbit for about $1,000, and beyond there the price shoots up to about $3,500. This price, while you might consider it a lot of money for a 4 inch cube, is enabling drastically reduced costs for space exploration and travel. NASA isn’t just deploying one microsat, they are rather deploying hundreds of microsats to work together to make discoveries. In fact, out there right now are 479 CubeSats orbiting Earth or exploring beyond. If tracking all of these satellites is your thing, you can even check out this website that will give you a comprehensive low-down on ever nanosat and CubeSat ever launched.
A typical CubeSat is going to have a small onboard computer, a power management system, a solar cell, a gas propulsion system, communications system, and sensors. The specific layout and additions to each of these systems vary by their intended use. Ultimately, shrinking electronic have made the world of CubeSats possible. This shrinking technology also means less weight to transport to space, therefore cheaper launch costs for space exploration.
Taking the leap into deep space exploration is on the table next for CubeSat teams. The biggest hurdle that crews will need to overcome is being able to effectively communicate with such a small satellite at extended distances. Besides the possible communications hurdles, the road is paved for CubeSat exploration. Since the satellites are so small, they also pose a much smaller financial and informational loss when they are destroyed or contact is lost. When a much larger satellite is lost, it poses a financial loss to NASA or the governing organization often hurdling into the billions of dollars. With CubeSats, losing one only poses a loss in the thousands of dollars range, which also means they can undergo much riskier operations. The low cost of launch and production doesn’t only mean good things for NASA, but it also gives educational institutions a way to conduct their own extraterrestrial research with a relatively low budget.
All in all, CubeSats offer a promising, and cheap, future for space exploration. Teams of small satellites will soon be roving the universe discovering the unknown, and that’s pretty cool.