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Small satellites paying big dividends



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space

Credits: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

When you think of the International Space Station, you can imagine an orbital laboratory where scientists observe how plants, matter, and humans react to microgravity conditions. However, over the past decade, stations have played a very different role-business incubators. And this is CubeSat, one of its main products.


CubeSat is one of several types of satellites currently found in space. It is one of the smallest. One “unit” is a compact cube of 10 x 10 x 10 cm and is commonly referred to as 1U. It can also be deployed for a fraction of the cost of a larger cousin.

The early small satellites launched from the base were literally thrown into space by Russian astronauts! In 2012, crews began deploying CubeSats of up to 6U per airlock cycle, utilizing the airlocks of the Japanese Kibo module. And soon after, the American company Nanoracks began building and operating a much more powerful distributor capable of firing up to 48U per cycle at the station. It changed everything.

Mike Read is the space station business and economic development manager at the Johnson Space Center. He notes how Planet, the first customer of Nanoracks, took advantage of the new launch capabilities on the space station.

“Planet wanted to take high-resolution photos of the Earth. You can take pictures from a space station, but the range is limited by the station’s orbit. But with multiple CubeSats you can place them to cover almost any point on Earth.”

Credit: Science @ NASA

In a relatively short time, Planet deployed several generations of CubeSats on the space station, demonstrating the viability of its technological approach and business model. With this success, Planet has rapidly expanded into operational vehicles consisting of more than 150 satellites deployed using commercial launch providers. This fleet provides the ability to image the entire planet on a daily basis. Planet’s image is now in high demand from businesses and governments using this big data in agriculture, forestry and land use, mapping and disaster response. In 10 years, the company has grown from a real startup to a company employing nearly 500 people.

Several companies are currently building small launch vehicles for placing CubeSats and other small satellites in low-earth orbit, and can be used in a variety of ways for businesses as well as students and non-profit organizations. CubeSats are being used to provide Internet service to the most remote areas on the planet. They are helping to improve weather forecasts by building better weather and climate models. You can send text messages to your phone from all over the world, even without a cell phone signal.

CubeSats are also leaving Earth. The first and second interplanetary CubeSats worked with NASA’s Insight Lander on a recent mission to Mars to pass data as the spacecraft entered the planetary atmosphere. Some CubeSat missions will serve as a guide to help map Artemis missions to the moon, and 13 CubeSats will start on their first mission, Artemis I.

Read concludes with the following observations: “Today, an increasingly larger and more expensive single satellite is being replaced by one of the newest members of the satellite portfolio. It’s a bunch of tiny, inexpensive yet very powerful CubeSats. We’ve expanded the station’s capabilities in ways we honestly couldn’t imagine. It has been a commercial success and has made a significant contribution to the growing space market.”


NASA Image: CubeSats deployed at the International Space Station


Summons: Small satellites paying large dividends (17th November 2020), retrieved on 17th November 2020 at https://phys.org/news/2020-11-small-satellite-big-dividends.html.

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