CubeSat is a technical specification for a miniature, low-cost satellite that is roughly double the size of a Rubik’s Cube. CubeSats are in the nanosatellite class and weigh between 1-10kg (2-29lbs). This type of modular satellite has a standard size of 10cm3 (1U) and can orbit the Earth 350 miles above the planet’s surface as an independent unit or as part of a satellite swarm. The concept of CubeSats was developed by Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, professors at Stanford University’s Space program.
In theory, a CubeSat can be built with commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) components and be launched into orbit for less than $50,000. Interest in deploying this type of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite has grown as practical applications for the Internet of Things (IoT) and ultra-low energy (ULE) computing have become mainstream.
In addition to reducing the latency that geostationary satellites experience, CubeSats can also reduce the cost of deployment by taking advantage of the excess capacity larger satellites and space vehicles require. It is not unusual for a CubeSat to hitch a ride into orbit as part of someone else's payload. To further reduce costs, some types of CubeSats can orbit the Earth in a sun-synchronous manner and take advantage of solar power.
CubeSats are expected to provide inexpensive internet coverage across the globe. According to researchers, the demand for additional LEO satellites that can efficiently handle satellite-to-satellite (S2S) and satellite-to-Earth (S2E) communications is strongly aligned with the rollout of 5G and edge computing, as well as the privatization of the aerospace industry. Because this type of satellite is so small and inexpensive, it is often allowed to burn up in the atmosphere when its orbit degrades.
During the past decade, there has been an increasing interest in using the Internet in Space to support Earth-bound applications in energy, the military, agriculture and supply chain management. Major CubeSat announcements in 2019 include the following:
- TriSept Corporation announced an $18 million indefinite delivery indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract to support NASA CubeSat launches. CubeSats, NanoSats and SmallSats are playing a growing role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA.
- Researchers from Shantou University in China are exploring how to design and manufacture CubeSats with 3D printing.
- Australian startup Fleet Space Technologies announced it raised more than $7 million to expand its constellation of satellites that provides IoT services.
- Dutch company Hiber is building an orbital constellation of CubeSats to provide IoT services for trucking, power cables, pipelines and precision agriculture.