Man has always been very curious about space. Who hasn’t ever tipped their head back to look at the stars or scour the skies for a shooting star or some luminous trace able to fuel our daydreams and conjure up ideas about the best kept secrets of the universe.
Space has always been the subject of great explorations and important missions in the modern era. And these missions have become so thrilling and popular that they are now followed on direct streaming on the internet, thanks to space agencies such as NASA, ESA and, among private companies, Space X, which shows the landings and launches of Falcon 9 and the Dragon space shuttle.
Space and space exploration are certainly no longer a topic for the privileged few. And now, researchers, scholars or simple enthusiasts can share their experiences thanks to technology that is now so advanced that it has led to the creation of CubeSats. We asked industry experts to explain to us what CubeSats are and what they are used for. We interviewed Prof. Chantal Cappelletti, co-founder and co-owner of G.A.U.S.S. (Group of Astrodynamics for the use of Space Systems) together with Prof. Filippo Graziani, to find out about this.
How does the idea of making a CubeSat come to someone?
“The idea of making a CubeSat or a satellite in general stems from a need: a need that only a satellite can satisfy. For example, imagine you wanted to observe remote areas of the earth, which are completely inaccessible, or you wanted to communicate using a cell phone right in the middle of a glacier or in the thick of a forest, or you wanted to provide a continuous monitoring service of a particular area. These are just a few of the things that satellites can be used for. Today, thanks to huge technological development in recent years, these systems are becoming smaller and smaller and increasingly lightweight, gaining improved capacity and performance at the same time”.
What are the benefits of using a CubeSat?
“CubeSats are mini satellites, nanosatellites to be precise, weighing around 1Kg and measuring as small as a 10cm cube. The main benefit is their versatility and cost: they are cheaper than larger systems.
The CubeSat was invented in the late ’90s by Prof. Robert J. Twiggs. It was then implemented by Prof. Jordi Puig Suari. The standard CubeSat has completely revolutionized the world of small satellites. The idea of setting a standard for the production of satellites has meant that technologies developed within each and every mission have helped rapidly reach a level of technological development that is competitive with larger satellites, but with a decidedly lower cost. Also, using a standard has made it possible to design a launch pad that is compatible with most launch vehicles presently available on the market. In other words, the standard has opened up many more launch opportunities compared with conventional satellites”.
How is it made? Are special production technologies used, such as 3D printing?
“3D printing technology has only recently been used to manufacture satellites, as the space environment limits the use of certain materials and therefore of the technology itself. The possibility of using low-cost satellites, such as CubeSats (especially with the KySat, CXBN, POPACS and TUPOD projects), as in-orbit technology demonstrators, has enabled validation of this technology for use in space, also allowing larger, heavier satellites to benefit from the undeniable advantages of additive manufacturing.
With regard to the other technologies in play, it can be said that, being reasonably priced, the CubeSat is well-suited for use as a technology demonstrator, allowing in-orbit testing and, as such, the classification of new types of technologies. The technology is chosen by the individual designer or by the team proposing the satellite’s mission”.
What are the most important deciding factors for the success of a CubeSat?
“A satellite is designed to carry out a mission. The mission normally determines what is known as the payload, which is the tool that makes it possible to meet the requirements of the mission and which, at the same time, imposes limits on the satellite’s design. The satellite is a group of systems which work together in order to meet a goal. In a certain sense, we could compare a satellite to the human body, in which we have: a structure supporting the factors of weight and load, just like our skeleton and muscles, a power system, which, like our heart, drives the whole system, allowing each single part to function, the on-board computer, which is our satellite’s brain, the telecommunications system, which enables the satellite to “speak” and “listen” to instructions from the ground station, and the attitude control and orbit control systems, which allow the satellite to determine its orientation and identify its position in orbit.
Each of these systems is significant and important in its own way for the success of the mission, by allowing the payload to function correctly”.
Who usually designs CubeSats? What is the professional profile of people designing and manufacturing this kind of system?
“CubeSats were invented for use as an academic tool to teach students how to carry out a complete space mission. From their invention to the present day, not only the applications but also the professional profiles behind CubeSat missions have changed profoundly. In the beginning, the CubeSat was regarded as a game for students. Now, on the other hand, with the huge progress that has been made and the capabilities developed, many space agencies are focusing on this type of satellite. The military, too, is starting to develop satellite systems based on CubeSat, and companies of the caliber of Google have begun developing their own constellation of CubeSat satellites”.
Looking ahead, how might CubeSats be used in the future?
“Future purposes are established mainly by human imagination rather than by technology. There are projects for monitoring environmental disasters, for developing biomedical studies, for improving internet services in remote areas, for developing smart farming techniques and preventing earthquakes. The future development of this system depends on the imagination of future designers”.
GAUSS’ very successfully completed projects include the TuPOD CubeSat, which was launched into space in January 2017 by the International Space Station (ISS), in partnership with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Credits for the photos of the TuPOD CubeSat: GAUSS and JAXA