Rise of the CubeSats

Small satellites get real.

CubeSats deployed from the ISS.

What began as a cheap way to give engineering students the experience of building and flying spacecraft is fast becoming an important tool for getting things done in space. CubeSats—the tiny and enticingly cheap spacecraft built from off-the-shelf components mounted on a standardized frame—are taking some big leaps in 2016.

NASA has several planned missions and a new clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena designated solely for CubeSat assembly and testing. There are currently three missions under development, with another to be added this spring.

Perhaps the most impressive of the JPL missions is Mars Cube One, the first deep-space CubeSat mission. MarsCO is comprised of two briefcase-sized spacecraft that will follow NASA’s InSight lander to Mars. As the lander descends to the surface, the two CubeSats will relay data from InSight back to Earth in real time. While it was originally scheduled to launch in March, the InSight mission was suspended in late December due to problems with the lander’s science payload. No fault of MarCO’s, but for now the CubeSats are grounded too.

In September, Georgia Tech’s PROX-1 will launch with the Planetary Society’s LightSail for the first tandem CubeSat mission. After the pair separate in orbit, PROX-1 will autonomously locate the Light Sail spacecraft, fly around it, and record live video as it deploys its sail. In the future, CubeSats like PROX-1 could be used to inspect other spacecraft for damage. Should these tests succeed, it could mean a regular “nano-assistance” gig for CubeSats tagging along on bigger missions.

Initially, commercial space companies used CubeSats mostly for flying new instruments and technologies into orbit to test how they worked—a cheap ride to space. But now that many of the cheap, off-the-shelf elements needed for spacecraft functionality have been proven to hold up in the space environment, CubeSats are starting to fly their own legitimate commercial missions. Out front is Planet Labs, which has pioneered the idea that CubeSats can be useful in their own right. The company has launched 113 of its Dove imaging CubeSats so far; it will have 150 Doves in orbit by the end of 2016. Together the fleet captures a complete image of the Earth every day, and the pictures are used by everyone from farming conglomerates to disaster responders.

Largely as a result of Planet Labs’ success, big venture capital firms like DFJ (which has funded Tesla and SpaceX) are lining up to get into the CubeSat business along with small investors who normally front money for things like smartphone apps. Industrial suppliers are scaling up to meet the skyrocketing demand for tiny spacecraft parts, providing everything from specialized components to entire out-of-the-box, re-configurable CubeSats.

Launch opportunities, traditionally a huge pain for spacecraft developers, are becoming easier to find. When CubeSats first arrived on the scene in the early 2000s, only a few rockets were cleared to fit them into their unused payload spaces. Now almost all launchers pack along CubeSats whenever there’s a spare bit of room, and Virgin Galactic and others have announced plans for smaller launchers designed to carry only CubeSats. (Virgin’s will be slung beneath a 747 and launched from 35,000 feet; its first flight is planned for 2017.)

But while the stream of CubeSat launches has remained steady—118 in 2014, 108 last year—their success rates are still comparatively dismal. One out of every three CubeSats that reach orbit fails to accomplish its mission (one in four is lost in a launch failure). But that’s actually part of the CubeSat’s appeal: They’re expendable, and you can afford to burn a few in the process of developing one that works. That said, many of the students, startups, and fledgling space agencies coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of the CubeSat boom just don’t know what they’re doing. The post-launch failure rate among first-timers is closer to 40 percent.

As far as taxpayer-funded science and exploration missions go, NASA may be less likely to fully embrace the benefits of expendability than you’d think. While the actual hardware that makes up a CubeSat can cost only tens of thousands of dollars, the agency has spent around $13 million on the MarCO mission. (Though to compare, the Insight mission that will ride along with it to Mars—one of NASA’s “low-cost” Discovery missions—has cost $525 million so far.) Most of that pays for testing and retesting, and for the expertise that goes into ensuring the two spacecraft work when they get to Mars. In space, as elsewhere, you get what you pay for, and success is expensive.

With so many CubeSats going up, the learn-by-doing approach is more affordable than ever, even if the learning curve can be steep. Given the increasing amounts of money to be made, the sort of folks who have put a smart phone in every pocket may also figure out how to pepper the skies with cubes.

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