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CubeSats Give Students Jump On Orbital Experiments

Student Allyson Whitaker works on a 3D-printed mock-up of the teams CubeSat experiment.
Student Allyson Whitaker works on a 3D-printed mock-up of the teams CubeSat experiment.

When it comes to experiments in space, scientists are thinking inside the box. CubeSats are self-contained laboratories about the size of a coffee thermos that hitch rides on rockets into low earth orbit.

Despite their small size, CubeSats are providing valuable lessons to students and have the potential to open up space to more commercial ventures.

Hands On

In a lab at the University of Central Florida, three students work with researcher Addie Dove on a CubeSat experiment to explore the impact plasma has on spacecraft. One student plugs away at code working on a program that will transmit the experiment’s data back to earth. Another is working on a full-scale mock-up of the satellite.

The last student, Merritt Robbins, sits at a laptop. Hands on his head, he stares at a blue screen. He’s just learned a very important lesson. “I just realized I didn’t save what I was working on. My computer just blue screened on me,” Robbins tells Dove.

Robbins – an electrical engineering student – was working on the schematics for the CubeSats batteries. Now, he has to start over.

Bob Twiggs helped invent CubeSats and says that tough lesson is the point. “The whole idea for building satellites with students is to give them a real hands on opportunity to do something real before they graduate,” said Twiggs.

Twiggs remembers some twenty years ago when NASA asked if he could create a trashcan sized satellite that would head to orbit.  “They said do you want work on a space project? And I said sure, but we’re kinda ignorant – we don’t know anything about putting things into space.”

When Twiggs became a professor at Stanford he challenged his students to create small satellites about the size of a box of tissues so that they would have experience working with satellites.

The first CubeSat launched in 2003, and now it’s become the industry standard when it comes to size and deployment of miniature satellites.

Learning Tool

Back in Addie Dove’s lab at UCF, she explains why CubeSats are a good fit in an academic environment:

[caption id="attachment_55412" align="alignleft" width="400"]

Students Allyson Whitaker, Chris Stevens, Researcher Addie Dove and Student Merritt Robbins work on a CubeSat experiment in a lab at UCF's Physical Sciences building.[/caption]

“If you can sort of picture a three year lifetime from building, launching and getting data back that’s about the lifetime for a graduate student to do a research project," said Dove. "So if you can make these things affordable we can really expand the sciences that can be done and really educate students in a different way than they’ve been able to be educated before.”

As miniature technology becomes more accessible, the cost of building these CubeSats goes down. Addie’s experiment uses a Raspberry Pi which is a microcomputer available for about forty bucks. It also uses a GoPro camera and the team can 3D print parts in house. At the end of the day, Dove says the cost of a CubeSat experiment is about $30,000 - 50,000.

The Rocket Launch Broker

Building a CubeSat is only the first step. For the experiment to really do its work, you have to launch it into space. That’s the job of NASA Garret Skrobot – he’s the agencies CubeSat Missions Manager.

Call him a rocket launch broker. There’s no dedicated rocket that launches these mini-satellites - yet. Skrobot has to find room on rockets already being launched. Think of it as finding extra room in your car after packing it for a road trip.

Skrobot says Bob Twiggs’ vision of a CubeSat the size of a tissue box is an advantage to him when trying to find a rocket for an experiment to hitch a ride. “It’s a standard size, it’s a standard mass. We look at various locations, but that same piece of hardware can go to another launch vehicle – it may not be in the same location but it will be able to fit easily on those vehicles as well.”

The CubeSat launch initiative was developed in 2010 and serves as a way for NASA to vet potential experiments.

Every August, NASA puts out a call for the selection of CubeSats for future flights. But since CubeSats are sharing a ride with another payload  like a bigger and more expensive satellite  they’re considered ‘secondary’ payload. And that limits their performance. CubeSats can’t carry any fuel. And they can only be launched at an altitude the ‘piggy backed’ rocket is going.

Still, the CubeSat initiative is filling hole of academic research left gaping after a 2003 disaster. “When Columbia had their accident, there was no access for educational institution to get to orbit, to do science and research on. This is an avenue now where we can get education back to flight. We’re launching education once again," says Skrobot.

That hole is filling up fast. And there’s a backlog of experiments that are waiting for a launch.

To get more CubeSats into orbit, NASA called on the help of private rockets. The agency asked commercial space companies to submit bids for a venture class of rockets to solely launch these small satellites.

Mark Wiese from NASA’s Launch Services Program says the move would help fill that gap. “Hopefully that will open the door for us to have the ability to not only serve this cubestat market but also allow the NASA science community to find more dedicated rides to space at a lower cost point,” says Wiese.

In October, NASA selected three private space companies to launch CubeSats: Firefly Space Systems, RocketLab USA, and Virgin Galactic. In total, NASA awarded $17 million for the new class of rockets. Over the next three years, these companies will begin to launch CubeSats and SmallSats exclusively.

A lower cost could open the doors for commercial interests, too. Already, private companies are launching CubeSat sized imaging satellites. And companies like Samsung, Google and Facebook have plans to blanket the earth with miniature satellites to provide internet access worldwide.

Wiese thinks a venture-class of rockets could support those efforts.  “Kennedy has a lot to offer, to bring that business back to Brevard County – the heart and soul of America’s ability to launch.”

Waiting To Launch

There’s a backlog of CubeSat launches. Parts are becoming more and more affordable, and as UCF Researcher Addie Dove explains, even someone with little experience can get in on the CubeSat game.

“They’re building kits for instance, so you can buy the kit and plug and play. Some places are building CubeSats and then you can pay for real estate on the CubeSat so they’ll do a lot of the infrastructure so you put the experiment on it,” says Dove.

That means a long wait for here team.

“There are a lot of people with CubeSats sitting on their shelves because either they don’t have the money for a launch or they’re still waiting.”

NASA’s Launch Services hopes to deploy the 50 CubeSats waiting for a ride to orbit in the next three years.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."