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The coming small satellite revolution

Today I received a press release from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), announcing a half-day symposium in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020 entitled ““The SmallSat Revolution: Doing More with Less.” The announcement was an invitation for the working press to register and attend, noting that the speakers will include, among others, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator science, Jeffrey Mamber, president of NanoRacks, and Patricia Cooper of SpaceX.

As interesting as this might sound at first glance, I will not attend. For one thing, it is on the other side of the continent, and I can’t afford to fly cross country for such a short meeting. For another, I don’t see the point. I attended a lot of these DC symposiums when I lived in Maryland, and though they were often very educational and the free food (paid for almost always by the taxpayer) was always enjoyable, I routinely found them somewhat lacking in newsworthy content.

Thirdly, and most important, yesterday I attended a much more newsworthy one day conference here in Tucson on exactly the same subject, dubbed the Arizona Academic CubeSat Symposium. Unlike the Washington event above — which will likely be a mostly superficial look at the burgeoning cubesat industry — yesterday’s symposium was focused on letting students and scientists describe actual and very ambitious cubesat projects presently under construction or design.

In less than seven hours I saw the following:

  • a proposal to build a cubesat to act as a guide star for future optical space telescopes with large segmented mirrors. If successful, the cubesat would provide the telescope the information required to align the mirror segments to an accuracy as tight as less than the width of a hydrogen atom.
  • a planned technology cubesat for testing the deployment and operation of a large inflatable balloon antenna for providing high gain communications. The antenna would inflate, becoming many times larger than the cubesat itself.
  • an on-going undergraduate cubesat project that has repeatedly helped students learn the engineering and management of building satellites, by having them both fail and succeed.
  • a student-built cubesat, just deployed from ISS, designed to study the urban heat effect.
  • an astronomy cubesat that will monitor M class stars in ultraviolet wavelengths.
  • plans by one university to install a large thermal vacuum chamber for cubesat testing.
  • a proposal to use cubesats to provide ground-penetrating radar maps of the icecaps over Greenland and Antarctica.
  • a cubesat interferometry technology-test mission that would use 3D printing, in space, to build two 30-foot-long beams, creating in a single satellite a interferometer made of two mirrors 60 feet apart. If this works it will not only demonstrate the use of cubesats to create a swarm of space telescopes capable of producing high resolution images, it will show that automated 3D printing (designed by the company Made in Space) is practical.
  • a proposed cubesat space telescope designed to map out the warm and hot gas filaments surrounding galaxies. The cubesat would be designed to stare at one edge-on galaxy for weeks at a time. If it works many such cubesat telescopes could be launched to look at other galaxies, at relatively little cost.
  • the early design testing for a cubesat to study cirrus ice clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere.

What struck me was not just the variety of proposals but the ambitiousness of them all. While each project might have been very focused on a very specific small task, the overall technical capabilities these missions would establish will make all future smallsats capable of doing most anything in space.

Some of these proposals will likely not fly. That is the nature of this game. Many that do fly will fail. That is also the nature of the game. The primary goal of all of these cubesat proposals is to test these new technologies. Even if they fail, they will provide valuable information for refining later cubesat designs that will make future successes possible. Even those projects that never get funded or built will serve the same purpose, as the designers will outline ideas that others can later pick up and push to success.

All of these proposals once again illustrate the growing bifurcation of the space industry. On one hand, the tasks that do not involve humans are increasingly being given over to smaller and smaller satellites and rockets. On the other hand, manned spaceflight is getting larger and more ambitious, even as it gets more efficient and less costly.

The former will not replace the latter. Instead, it will make manned space more doable, providing cheap and easily built technology for scouting out the targets for future human exploration and colonization.

Assuming society does not collapse from revolution, disease, or financial bankruptcy, all real threats, it looks like the 20s and 30s will be a very exciting time in the exploration of the solar system. For those just old enough to enter college now and who are smart enough to get a degree in engineering or the hard sciences, the future will be very bright indeed.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Jay

    This small sat revolution is more like a Space Renaissance to me. A few miles away from me, a university is developing their own cubesat. I got to see it, met with their group, and was impressed with their testing procedures. Their cube sat will be measuring magnetic fields and will be an amateur radio repeater. I envy these young engineering students. If I wanted to work on satellites when I was their age, I would have to get a job at Hughes or Boeing.

    Interesting about the inflatable cubesat for communications, that reminds me of the Echo 1 satellite launched in the 60’s.

    I can see it now, in ten years we can order our own personal cubesat kit, just like a Heathkit, and pay SpaceX or some other company a few thousand dollars to haul it up to orbit. Of course I am sure the FAA or FCC will want an insurance policy on it!

  • Jay

    Looks like the future is now. There is a company that is selling cubesat component kits!

  • Edward

    Jay wrote: “I can see it now, in ten years we can order our own personal cubesat kit, just like a Heathkit

    Funny he should say that. When CubeSats were first announce, two decades ago, that was the tag line: fly your own satellite.

    A few years earlier, I had sat in on a design review for Bob Twiggs’s Stanford students OPAL smallsat, which was octagonal in shape (I still have the “souvenir” tee-shirt). Professor Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari of Cal Poly invented the CubeSat to solve problems with finding launch opportunities, because arbitrarily shaped, sized, and weighted student satellites required unique mounting and release mechanisms, complicating the piggyback rides on standard launch vehicles. The CubeSat standardized the shapes, sizes, and weights of student satellites, and uniform release mechanisms could be used, simplifying the piggyback rides to orbit.

    Interestingly, the small satellite revolution was predicted a third of a century ago, and Orbital Sciences made the Pegasus launch vehicle to get in on that action. A quarter of a century ago, it looked again like it was coming, and Lockheed developed the Athena family of launch vehicles to get in on the action. CubeSats looked like they would finally bring about the revolution, and SpaceX made the Falcon 1 to capitalize on all the action.

    The Smallsat Revolution was failing to materialize, because there just weren’t enough suppliers of smallsat parts, such as propulsion, antennas, or solar arrays. Long ago, large satellites became popular, because if you were going to spend a lot of money on a launch, you wanted to put a lot of instruments or repeaters on the satellite in order to get your money’s worth. Unfortunately, this resulted in complications in getting everything to work together, and technological advancements tended to make your satellite obsolete even as it was being mounted to the launch vehicle.

    Cubesats could be of different sizes by “putting together” multiple cubes. A popular size was the three unit cubesat, about the size of a loaf of bread. (Is it the size of a breadbox? Why, yes it is!) With the popularity of this satellite type, several companies finally realized that there was a market for smaller components, made specifically for cubesats or other small satellites. As these components started to come onto the market, communication companies realized that they could make large constellations of small satellites and place them in low Earth orbit. Irridium and Globalstar helped pave this territory, a quarter century ago. Advantages included low latency time for the signals — as they didn’t have to travel to and from geostationary orbit — the inexpensive nature of small satellites and their mass production, and the ability to replace the satellites at their technology became obsolete.

    Several companies, such as OneWeb and Starlink, are now building large constellations of small satellites in low Earth orbit. This gives the small component manufacturers a reliable customer base, and the other customers, such as student projects, various companies, and government agencies (NSA is fond of the smallsat) help keep the customer base strong.

    Now that the small satellite revolution is upon us, we expect smallsat launch providers to prosper, too. Rocket Lab’s “energizer bunny,” Electron, is expected to have a large customer base. There are more than a hundred smallsat launch startup proposals, but there probably isn’t a short-term market for even a dozen of them. Is it ironic that SpaceX is not planning on resurrecting Falcon 1 in time to take advantage of this new market? Many of the initial large constellation launches will be on large launch vehicles, but replacements may go up on the dedicated small launchers.

    NASA and other countries have tested cubesats and other smallsats as deep space probes, at the Moon and even at Mars. They performed well, so this time it looks certain that the Smallsat Revolution has finally arrived.

  • Lee S

    I’m looking forward to seeing cubesats being utilised for deep space applications…. Imagine a mission to one of the outer planets, dropping a whole bunch of tiny probes into the orbit of Saturn… Some acctually entering the rings… Visiting Titan and Enceladus… Probing into the atmosphere and sending back data from many different viewpoints…. I hope this occurs in my (our!) Lifetimes, but I have no doubt that Lee S jnr will get to see this… And hopefully if he keeps his interest in science, he might even be involved.

  • mkent

    I’m looking forward to seeing cubesats being utilised for deep space applications

    That day is getting closer. The Psyche mission will carry along with it two secondary payloads: Escapade, which will study the Martian atmosphere, and Janus, which will study binary asteroids.

    Irridium and Globalstar helped pave this territory, a quarter century ago.

    Don’t forget OrbComm and OrbImage, both spinoffs of Orbital Sciences. OrbComm was fifty 22-kg store-and-forward communications satellites launched on seven Pegasuses, a Taurus, and a Kosmos. OrbImage was a series of four 68-kg to 368-kg satellites launched on three Pegasuses and a Taurus.

    Orbital really initiated the smallsat revolution three decades ago building small launch vehicles and satellites.

    If I wanted to work on satellites when I was their age, I would have to get a job at Hughes or Boeing

    Just a nit, but for the record, Boeing Satellite Systems is the former Hughes Space. The other big players are Lockheed Martin (formerly RCA and GE Space) and Space Systems Loral (formerly Philco and Ford Aerospace).

  • mkent

    Oops. Looks like I didn’t close a blockquote tag properly. My apologies to the host. Feel free to fix it if you’d like.

    Of course, a Preview option would help here (gentle nudge). :-)

  • Jay

    Yes, you are correct. One of my friends got hired right out of school at Hughes, left when Boeing got it in 99′ and joined my company.


  • Joe

    The next phase of smallsats are going to be the PocketQube sized machines. The number of developers for this new format has ballooned from two to over 100 in the last few years. It has been incredible to be a part of such a vibrant new community.

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