It used to be that sending a satellite into space took years of planning and cost millions of dollars. Now, enterprising scientists can send their experiments into orbit at a fraction of the cost – and a fraction of the size – using something called a CubeSat.
CubeSats are sort of like the miniature version of containers shipped on modern cargo ships. They are built to be multiples of a standard unit of size – 10 cm x 10 cm x 11 cm (that is one Unit or “U”) – and any one can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size. Each U can weigh up to 1.33 kg. The idea behind these little satellites is to treat extra space on existing rocket launches as sort of mini space container ships that can hold a bunch of these little guys. This allows ordinary people, educational institutions, and companies to get something into space at a fraction of the cost of what it might otherwise cost.
How Much Does a CubeSat Cost?
Anyone can buy something called a CubeSat kit that contains everything you need to put your own satellite into space – except your satellite’s experiment and the launch costs. In other words it has the cube itself, microprocessor, motherboard and other critical components. Basic kits can be had for under $10,000. Then you can buy all sorts of extras including little solar panels, power supplies, antennas, communication hardware – all sorts of stuff. I found a price list at Pumpkininc.com, in case you’re interested in perusing it. Now the cost of the launch is the bigger ticket item – potentially more than $100,000. The good news is that NASA has a program called the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CLSI) that could cover the launch costs. Accredited educational institutions and government organizations can apply for the program. The first round closed in February of this year, but there are sure to be more to come.
Are CubeSats Really a Big Thing?
The fact that a simple Google search for “cubesat kits” yields four separate companies offering kits for sale – on the first page – shows that this is a real thing. Even more telling is the recent closing of a Series A round of funding of $15M for space startup Audacy, which plans to build three satellites and two ground stations to act as a communications and data network for all these little spacecraft. At full capacity, Audacy’s network can support up to 2,000 separate satellites. CEO Ralph Ewig said that there could be anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 launching into low-Earth orbit (LEO) in the near future. Audacy is even setting up to support Lunar communications, potentially supporting entrants in the Lunar X-Prize. Already, hundreds of CubeSats have been launched by NASA, ESA and private companies.
What Does the Future Hold?
With the infant CubeSat industry already standardizing offerings, startups building supporting networks, and space launch startups like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada Corporation lowering the cost of space launches, it’s not hard to see the commercial applications of this industry taking off (pun intended) within the next decade. CubeSats are yet another example of space becoming more accessible. The future appears bright indeed.