About CubeSat Payloads
A CubeSat is a miniaturized satellite (also known as nanosatellite) that is designed to perform all the functions of a regular satellite. Its physical dimensions are about 10 cubic centimeters and it weighs less than a kilogram. Over 300 such satellites have already been launched into low earth orbit and about 150 more CubeSats are getting ready to be launched in the next few years.
CubeSats are being launched mainly for educational and research purposes. As they are smaller in size, they are not capable of carrying sensors that would help to conduct scientific research of significance. However, it is also important to note that when many CubeSats with identical sensors are networked, some basic scientific research is possible.
All CubeSats are 10 x 10 cm whatever be their length. The system that is used to launch them is called P-POD which expands to Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer. A P-POD is usually mounted on a launch vehicle and deployed on receipt of appropriate signals from the launch vehicles.
This article aims to inform aspiring designers of such CubeSats about companies and services that provide CubeSat launch opportunities into low earth orbits (LEO) and beyond.
CubeSat Launches To Date
The earliest launch of CubeSat was in 2003 by Eurockot Launch Service. The CubeSats which were deployed into the sun-synchronous orbits included Danish, Canadian, American and Japanese. A large number of CubeSats have since been placed from the year 2012 onwards. In 2014, 33 CubeSats were launched which included satellites from Peru, Lithuania and the US.
Future projects in this field include the ambitious QB50 in which there is a proposal to launch 50 CubeSats for atmospheric research in the lower thermosphere which has been explored minimally up till now (typically distances between 200 and 380 km altitude). There is also a proposed mission to send two CubeSats along with a stationary lander to Mars (MarCO).
The estimated cost for launching CubeSats into the LEO is between $65000 and $80000. The lower costs have encouraged universities and even schools to develop their own CubeSats. Though the costs associated with building CubeSats is very competitive, they have to find their way to the space as secondary payloads on large rockets that are used to launch larger spacecraft and the price is around $100,000. There are only a small number of research institutions and companies that offer launching services for clusters of CubeSats. Given below is a brief detail about these companies.
CubeSat Launch Providers
NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) is a program that would enable small payload satellites to fly on NASA rockets. However, to qualify for the program, the investigations intended of the CubeSats should be in line with NASAâ€™s Strategic Plan and should be within the confines of the Education Strategic Coordination Framework. It is also necessary that the research should be exploration, science, technology development, operations or education oriented. About 29 states have been selected from where the satellites are to come.
NASA is planning to award contracts to commercial launch providers who would develop new systems that would carry CubeSats. The Venture Class Launch Services contracts would require the launch provider to lift one 60-kg batch of CubeSats or 2 batches of 30-kg CubeSats.
The CSLI program is expected to give rise to advanced technology partnerships among relevant participants from the US industry, NASA and other sectors. It also gives a chance to NASA to strengthen its future workforce. Above all, this initiative proves to be a mechanism for low-cost development of technology using CubeSats.
NanoRacks, in accordance with its Space Act Agreement with NASA, can deploy CubeSats from its CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) placed on board the ISS. It is the first commercial satellite deployer that functions from aboard the ISS. NanoRacks also have research equipment installed in the inside of the ISS.
One of the methods of putting CubeSats into orbit is by transporting them as part of cargo to a space station (ISS) using a spacecraft. The CubeSats are then deployed into their positions in the orbit as separate satellites using the NRCS Deployer which is correctly positioned by the robotic arms of the ISS.
Virgin Galactic is readying its low-cost launcher systems (LauncherOne) dedicated to serve the small satellite segment. This program enables the satellites to be delivered to the spot that is required at the best prices.
LauncherOne is designed to be a two-stage rocket that is capable of lifting off 225 kilograms to a low-inclination LEO. The price for the utilizing the CubeSat flights would be less than $10 million.
LauncherOne is also currently capable of flying out of many launch sites across the US. After regulatory approval, it is expected that these CubeSat flights would be able to take off from many sites in different parts of the world. This would help to optimize performance and help to realize maximum value out of the launch. This project is expected to provide flexibility and speed for the launch of the CubeSats and will cut down on both waiting times and the cost involved.
Space Exploration Technologies launched CubeSats as early as in 2010 for the National Reconnaissance Agency and the Missile Defense Command. NASA is collaborating with SpaceX to participate in their Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program which would help universities and satellite designers to carry their CubeSats into the LEO for science and tech missions.
The future Falcon 9 flights are designed to carry CubeSats and smaller satellites.
Orbital Sciences Corp.
The Orbital Sciences Corp. is planning to use its Antares rocket (medium-lift) to launch CubeSats later this year. This would be combined with its program of delivering future cargo supplies to the ISS. The first Antares flight is scheduled to carry three CubeSats.
A launch services provider for small and secondary payloads, has announced a partnership with NanoRacks that would enable commercial launch services from the ISS for deployment of satellites into the LEO. This collaboration would help to provide routine launches for customers to launch CubeSats from the ISS using NRCSD. Spaceflight Inc., has scheduled up 36 launches between 2013 and 2017 as part of the program.
Also gearing up to offer launch services for CubeSats through its Athena rocket program for 50-kg and 180-kg satellites and CubeSats.