Start your own little space program
Ok, I admit I've dedicated a disproportionate number of posts to space technology. But space is just THAT cool.
Putting things into space requires knowing everything there is to know about materials here on earth, and then re-learning how to deal with the extremes of space travel. Extremes in the forces of vibration and Gees during a rocket launch. Extremes in temperature, radiation, and lack of gravity once in orbit. And extremes in terms of the kinds of technologies needed to communicate with earth.
It used to be that space was the final frontier only for well-endowed corporations, or for national governments. Well, now you too can be part of the new space age! It's smaller. It's faster. And it's way cheaper - enter the cubesat.
Cubesat is really a standard or a genre for tiny inexpensive satellites. The cubesat specifications were first laid out by the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab in 1999. Their goal was to make the develompent cycle for satellites short enough and inexpensive enough that university students could participate in space research. You can read about the specifications here on the CubeSat home page. If your satellite fits these parameters, then it is compatible with all the wonderful ways of putting teeny tiny satellites into space!
Fun facts about Cube Sats
University cubesat programs can come in right around $100,000 USD, including the satellite and the actual launch. There is no limit, however, to how MUCH you can actually spend on a miniature spaceship. They can cost as much as a much bigger spacecraft, depending on what sorts of miniature high-tech equipment you pack into them.
Four neat sizes
- Single Cube 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm
- Double Cube 10 cm x 10cm x 20 cm
- Tripple Cube 10 cm x 10cm x 30 cm
- 6 Pack 10cm x 20 cm x 30 cm
Launch & Deployment
The cubesats are small enough to be brought up to the space station along with other cargo. Once aboard the space station, they launched into orbit from a spring loaded cannon held by the robotic arm. Alternatively, cubesats can be 'smuggled' aboard rockets carrying other larger satellites. Their 'carry-on' qualities let them piggy back onto other space missions, making them affordable.
How Long do they Last?
They survive a week or so. Give or take a few days... It entirely depends on the type of equipment onboard, if they use batteries or solar panels, and if there is currently a solar storm hammering it with charged particles. Since they are so small, there is little that can be done to shield the contents from the extremes in temperature and radiation in space. Furthermore, most are built with inexpensive off the shelf electronics. Inexpensive electronics may have great instant capability these days, they just are not that durable. Sometimes special techniques are used to 'space harden' circuit boards, such as coating them with high temperature epoxy. This tends to hold the solder connections in place even if the temperatures are currently hot enough for that solder to be liquid! Regardless of the satellite's functionality, cubesats are purposely launched into decaying orbits. This way, they do not add to the overall orbiting burden of space junk.
Many cool ways have been designed to attach solar panels, extendable antennas, cameras, etc to these small satellites. Micro rocket propulsion systems are even being designed that will one day enable small satellites to navigate and shift orbits. It's kind of tantalizing to think of real space hardware being like tiny click-on options. One of the neatest methods I saw for extending an antenna from a tiny satellite is to use a rolled-up metal tape measure. Once in orbit, small motors extend the tape out and away from the satellite! I've played that game myself, trying to touch the ceiling with a tape measure before gravity causes the curved tape to *snap* and fall in two clamoring hinged segments, generally spilling coffee into my keyboard. (In space, gravity is at an all time low, and tape measures are quite rigid and extensible.)
How many cubesats have been launced since 1999?
Over 1600 of them! This figure also includes cubesats' even smaller cousins, the nanosats. Here is an updated list of nearly all of them: http://www.nanosats.eu/.
These small satellites are generally quite simple and purpose built. They may have a few sensors, and they generally have some ability to transmit data back to earth or to the international space station. Their introduction as a learning platform has blossomed into an international movement, providing a window into space for entire nations! The thing that I find so inspiring about this whole concept is that it is accessible to many different groups of people. Here is a wonderful article about an elementary school that designed and launched their own cubesat with some help from NASA.
What could your cubesat do? Why not ponder this while you check out one final link to a site that sells kits for building them: http://www.cubesatkit.com/ :-)