February 23, 2011

Final Frontier Week Day 2 Bonus Feature: CubeSats Riding High with Glory

The launch of NASA’s new earth observation satellite, Glory, was delayed today, but rest assured that it will not have to make the long trip into space alone when it does take off. The Taurus XL rocket that will be sending Glory into orbit will also be carrying three secondary payloads – CubeSats, to be specific.

What is a CubeSat, you ask? In simple terms, it’s a very small satellite; or, as the University of Kentucky’s Space Systems Laboratory puts it in science speak:

...cubesats conform to a nanosatellite standard which is used for missions involving educational outreach, component testing, and space research. The motivation for CubeSats is to standardize the dimensions and mass along with the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics to help drive down launch costs.

Scientific American had a great profile of CubeSats in last month’s issue, and in its less technical summary:

For decades each generation of satellites has been more complicated and expensive than its predecessor, taken longer to design, and required an infrastructure of expensive launch facilities, global monitoring stations, mission specialists and research centers.

In recent years, however, improvements in electronics, solar power and other technologies have made it possible to shrink satellites dramatically. A new type of satellite, called CubeSat, drastically simplifies and standardizes the design of small spacecraft and brings costs down to less than $100,000 to develop, launch and operate a single satellite—a tiny fraction of the typical mission budget of NASA or the European Space Agency.

The University’s Space Systems Laboratory’s own CubeSat is the KySat-1. Built entirely by students at the University, KySat-1’s primary mission is educational outreach. The small satellite can be controlled by mobile ground stations that will be brought to schools around the state to allow students to interact with it. As KySat-1’s website explains, “Children will be able to upload/download images and audio files, and will also have the capability to command the satellite to take photos using ground station software developed by SSL.”

The Explorer-1 [prime] is another CubeSat that will be launched alongside Glory. Explorer-1 [prime] was designed and will be run by the University of Montana. Its mission is to demonstrate the utility of CubeSats for collecting weather forecasting data. Not only would CubeSats offer a more affordable option for doing this than normal sized earth observation satellites, but, if the scientists at the University of Montana are correct, will be able to collect more precise data in certain parts of the atmosphere.

As part of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, the University of Colorado at Boulder is home to the third and final CubeSat that will be launched with Glory, the Hermes CubeSat. The Hermes mission will be primarily technical, testing certain new features to provide scientists a better understanding of them for when they construct future CubeSats. For our more science-minded readers who want the particular details of this mission, we encourage you to visit Hermes’s mission objective page.

You can follow Glory and KySat-1 on Twitter, @NASAglory and @KySpace_KySat1 respectively.