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Space Technology Hall of Fame® Inductee Spotlight: CubeSat
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Space Technology Hall of Fame® honors individuals, organizations, and companies for their contributions that increase public awareness for space exploration and innovation. The CubeSat Design Standard is one of three technologies inducted by Space Foundation in 2022.
A CubeSat is a class of miniaturized satellite intended for low Earth orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research functions.
Professor Robert Twiggs of Stanford University and Dr. Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University developed the CubeSat specifications in 1999. Symposium 365 was fortunate to interview these two innovators as part of our 2022 Space Technology Hall of Fame® Inductee Spotlight Series.
The Story of CubeSat
A Solution for a Teaching Time Crunch
Professor Twiggs faced an issue in teaching his graduate students: The one-year master’s program was not nearly long enough to build a satellite from planning to completion. At that time, satellites were large and took nearly six years to complete. The program could not provide students with valuable hands-on experience of the entire satellite building process.
Professor Twiggs had to come up with a solution to make satellites easier for students to accomplish within their limited time. A similar device, called the PicoSAT (short for picosatellite) had been developed, and it served as part of the inspiration for the CubeSat. The PicoSAT was a thin rectangle with solar panels on two sides, prompting Twiggs to joke that it looked like a Klondike Bar. Twiggs knew that to power a satellite as small as the one they envisioned, it would need multiple solar panels.
Twiggs visited a plastic store where he found an unconventional inspiration—a Beanie Babies collector box. (This was the ‘90s, when Beanie Babies were all the rage.) The box was the perfect size for the satellite and would allow solar panels to cover every side.
The numbers supported the idea. The Beanie Babies box cube size almost perfectly translated to 10 centimeters to incorporate the use of the International System of Units (SI) for measurement, which was critical for students to learn.
Struggle to Launch
Although the CubeSat was a revolutionary way to make a satellite compact, it didn’t catch on immediately. When the idea was first presented to different representatives in the space community, many didn’t want to commit money or effort to test the launch. This is Where Dr. Jordi Pui-Suari came in to help.
“You can build a satellite and it can be wonderful, but if you don’t get it into space, it isn’t a satellite,” Puig-Suari said.
The CubeSat was not the only satellite device that struggled to launch. Many student-made satellites were not accepted by launch providers because they didn’t trust student work.
Puig-Suari and Twiggs made a request of these launch providers: If they could put the CubeSats into a launch box proven to contain the satellites until release, could they be granted a launch? This received a “yes” from Russian launch providers, followed later by U.S. providers.
Satellites typically take a year to launch, but thanks to CubeSat’s small size, the team was able to launch 14 satellites out of Russia at once. Their celebration was short-lived, however. The satellite launch failed, and for a time it seemed that the CubeSat would not be feasible in space.
While discouraging, CubeSat’s initial failure to launch wasn’t the end of the story. Many U.S. government and space industry organizations heard about CubeSat’s initial launch and offered to take another chance on the student satellites. The first official CubeSat launch took place in 2003, thanks to innovation on behalf of Dr. Puig-Suari, who invented the P-pod launcher to shoot out multiple CubeSat devices at once.
The P-pod launcher, which stands for Poly Picosatellite, is designed to carry 3 small, CubeSat devices, and can easily be stored as payload in any spacecraft, without sacrificing space.
An Invaluable Teaching Tool
The CubeSat project was not only revolutionary for what it meant for space, but for what it meant to students. Students gained knowledge and hands-on experience that put them years ahead of their peers. The program allowed them to learn from their failures in a safe environment.
CubeSats Beyond the Classroom
CubeSats were primarily used for academic purposes until 2014, but today are employed by private and state-owned companies around the world. More than 1,600 CubeSats have been launched as of August 2021. On the International Space Station (ISS), up to six CubeSats can be released at one time.
CubeSats can function as a sort of swarm, covering multiple different points and angles that larger satellites cannot provide. One of the most recent uses of CubeSat technology was that of the MarCO—the Mars Cube One. It is one of the first uses of a CubeSat device for interplanetary research. Not only did this device allow for imaging of Mars like we have never seen before, but at an $18.5 million cost, it is a mere percentage of the cost that most missions like this require.
The Future of the CubeSat
While the entirety of a plan for the CubeSat’s use is somewhat unknown, what we do know is it provides a lower cost, lower risk option for space exploration. It cannot entirely replace other space satellites and machinery as the device does not have the ability to carry certain instruments, but it can function as a secondary payload and provide us with imaging as a compact unit.
The CubeSat will continue to benefit students and space explorers alike as it helps us learn about space and our universe.
More From Space Technology Hall of Fame®
Space Technology Hall of Fame® recognizes individuals and technology dedicated to the betterment of space exploration. To learn more about our inductees, visit the website.