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10 July 2017

Tiny CubeSats are making space more accessible for study ... in a big way

CubeSat in space. Image courtesy of NASA.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … CubeSat?

Small, boxy, cost-effective nanosatellites are helping to change the way we explore space. Not only are they making low Earth orbit (LEO) space exploration more accessible due to cheap production, but they can be used in both commercial and amateur projects, making applications versatile.

Originally, CubeSats were invented by researchers at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University to “enable graduate students to design, build, test and operate limited capabilities of artificial satellites within the time and financial constraints of a graduate degree program,” Space Daily reported recently. This was accomplished by establishing a standard CubeSat dimension of 10x10x11 cubic units — small enough to speed up the process and ensure low costs.

(A search on CubeSats literature in the SPIE Digital Library provides insights into how the technology has developed.)


CubeSats in the 'ignorosphere'

Recently, CubeSats were deployed in a mission to gather data from a region of space that was previously uncharted.

Known by some scientists as the “ignorosphere,” because of the limited knowledge of it, Earth’s lower thermosphere cannot support planes, balloons, or standard satellites. In addition, it holds both the hottest and coldest air on Earth, according to New Scientist. Due to this “Bermuda Triangle” effect, efforts to study the mysteries of the ignorosphere have been futile — until this year.

In April 2017, an international mission, QB50, set out to explore the lower thermosphere. The CubeSats launched in a “string of pearls” formation. QB50 project manager Davide Masutti explained in a NewScientist article that the CubeSats will be able to measure various components of the thermosphere, including density and temperature, as they freefall. In doing so, scientists hope to gather data from multiple levels of the thermosphere, thus having a more complete picture of this mysterious area.

Selection of CubeSats that are part of the QB50 mission.
Image courtesy of the QB5O Consortium/NASA.

In addition to data collection in the lower thermosphere, QB50 has three other mission objectives: to facilitate access to space, provide In-Orbit Demonstration, and educate university students. They accomplished the latter by inviting students from around the world to help build the CubeSats that were launched into space.

The “young engineers, supervised by experienced staff at their universities and guided by the QB50 project … will not only learn about space engineering in theory but will leave their universities with hands-on experience,” the site notes.

More information about the mission is on their website.


Upcoming CubeSats presentations

What other missions are deploying CubeSats?

Thomas Pagano
Thomas Pagano, Principal Investigator and Project Manager of the CubeSat Infrared Atmospheric Sounder (CIRAS) at NASA JPL, will be giving a talk about his team’s latest project involving CubeSats at SPIE Optics + Photonics 2017 in San Diego, California.

On 9 August in the Remote Sensing plenary session, Pagano will provide insight into CIRAS, and what NASA hopes to accomplish by launching this satellite in late 2018. He will also be presenting a paper in the Earth Observing Systems conference about the design and development of CIRAS.

In addition to Pagano’s plenary talk, multiple papers will be presented on the topic of CubeSats.

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