So you now know your CubSats from your PocketQubes, you’ve got the differences between Pico and Micro down and you know roughly what makes these things tick. Now you ask… Why? What reason do we have for making these small satellites over their larger cousins – bigger is better right? Well not always! Step through the sections below to discover why nanosatellites are becoming more and more popular.
Money Talks! Space has historically been the domain of only the largest countries in the world. Only a governmental backed organisation could afford the risk of spending millions, if not billions, of dollars on the satellite development and launch vehicles required to access space.
However with the emergence of nanosatellite it is now possible for a group of high-school students to buy and assemble their own satellite and even have it launched on one of the many rockets going up each year with standardised deployers. This opens up the satellite market to many more countries, companies and industries than ever before.
A major benefit of the simple and cheap nature of nanosatellites is that for the same price as a traditional large satellite you could instead build a whole lot of CubeSats. This fact has not been missed by leading space companies who are looking to send up a whole constellation of nanosatellites. Some are even talking up to 4000 or more!
Imagine a huge network of small satellites orbiting the Earth simultaneously creating a giant web that can be used to do incredible things. A major advantage of larger satellites is that they can be equipped with larger and better quality equipment (cameras, lenses etc.). However by working together, a constellation of nano-satellites can match the data gathered by their larger brethren and in some areas, exceed them.
These constellations can be used for deep space imaging, high-quality continuous Earth observation, superfast communications across the whole planet and much, much more.
The greatest enemy of traditional satellites is time. Generally development times for large satellites are more than a decade, which in today’s technological climate is a major issue. Think back to 10 years ago – The Iphone 3G had just been released. If we started designing a satellite back then for launch this year, it would be using the technology that went into the iphone 3G! Not only that, we would be stuck with that technology for the entire mission lifetime which is often 15-20 years! Not an ideal situation.
CubeSats however are future proof. Because they are cheap and easy to make and launch, you can easily build and launch a replacement satellite every 2 years to replace the one in orbit as technology changes. Just de-orbit the one in space (and have it burn up in the atmosphere), send up a replacement, and you have a brand new, technologically current satellite ready to go.
Not only that, but if something goes wrong or the satellite needs maintenance, traditional satellites are a bit stuck. Unfortunately there’s no repairman on call for outer space. With cubesats, if a collision occurs or a critical part breaks, just de-orbit and send up a replacement!
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the standardised CubeSat is that they can be configured to pretty much any level of complexity and customisation that you could wish for. A high school class can buy a 1U cubesat kit, with all the modules that allow it to simply beacon (send out a signal at a regular interval) and assemble the satellite with a minimum of effort.
At the other end of the scale, a large company with experienced engineers can fully design, manufacture and assemble a large 12U satellite with advanced cameras and scientific instrumentation for an important research mission.
The best part is that both of these types of CubeSats can be easily integrated on a number of different launch vehicles around the world. With nanosatellites, you are limited by only your imagination.