Although the development of nano-satelites has vastly reduced the costs of conducting basic, and in some cases more advanced scientific research in Low Earth Orbit in recent years, the $50 000 or more involved in constructing a cubesat is still prohibitively high.
To date, no private initiatives have led to the launch of a cubesat mission, even though the actual launch can be had for free under certain conditions.
However, the relatively low cost of conducting cubesat-based research has opened up many opportunities for schools, universities, and other organizations to send their own cubesats that are four inches square, and only weigh a few pounds, into space to conduct high-level research into subjects as diverse as metal corrosion, yeast cell growth, the detection of forest fires and many more.
To illustrate the versatility and adaptability of cubesat technology, we have compiled a list of ten random examples of cubesat missions that are either ongoing, or had been concluded successfully.
1.) Earth Observation – Flock 1b
Launch date: September 7, 2014.
Organization: Planet Labs.
Research objective: Earth Imaging.
In conjunction with a previous mission known as Flock-1, Flock 1b enables a more continuous imaging of the entire globe to aid in humanitarian efforts. Primary areas of interest include monitoring deforestation, melting rates of the ice caps, and investigation of soil conditions to improve crop yields in developing nations.
Planet Labs provides global access to information gathered to all interested researchers to ensure optimal utilization of relevant data sets.
2.) Plant Seed Growth
Launch date: September 30, 2012.
Organization: Valley Christian Schools.
Research objective: Investigation of plant seed growth in microgravity.
Although the primary objective of this mission is to provide a teaching platform to students, a secondary objective is the investigation of the effects of microgravity on plant growth. This module employs a self-contained seed-growth capsule in which the various stages of seed germination is monitored by an internal camera in the pressurised environment of the International Space Station.
3.) Symbiotic Nodulation
Launch date: September 2, 2014.
Organization: Limerick Institute of Technology.
Research objectives: Formation of symbiotic nodes in reduced gravity.
The primary objective of the mission is to investigate the effects of microgravity on the manner in which symbiotic bacterial colonies on the roots of plants supply some plants with nitrogen. Reduced gravity is known to effect living organisms on the cellular level, and new insights into this process has the potential to reduce the manual application of nitrogen-rich fertilizers while increasing crop yields, particularly in developing countries, where excess nitrogen in run-off water can seriously affect the health of large bodies of water.
Launch date: March 17, 2012.
Organization: Valley Christian Schools.
Research objectives: Electro-plating in microgravity.
Since electro-plating is a proven means to protect some metals against corrosion, the primary object of the mission is to compare the quality of electro-plating of metal with gold and bronze on the International Space Station, with the effects of similar electro-plating methods performed on Earth, to determine if the effects of microgravity produces improved results.
5.) Yeast Cell Growth
Launch date: September 1, 2014.
Organization: Awty International School.
Research objectives: Investigation of yeast cell growth.
The experiment has implications for the pharmaceutical industry since in medical research, yeast cells are often used as “models” for human cells in the study of the effects of new medications on human cells. In this experiment, three yeast strains- “Saccharomyces cerevisiae”, “Saccharomyces ellipsoideus”, “Schizosaccharomyces pombe”, are subjected to the same conditions in the same growing medium to determine the effects of microgravity on the growth rate of yeast cells, which could affect the manufacturing processes of new medications.
6.) Amateur Radio
Launch date: February 28, 2014.
Research objectives: Improvement of amateur radio.
Although the primary objective of Lithuania’s first cubesat mission is to provide a teaching platform to young engineers and university students in the subject of space engineering, the mission has the added benefits that it carries an FM repeater, that is available to amateur radio operators around the world on the one hand, and that it serves as a test platform for various types of sensors and control mechanisms in conditions of reduced gravity.
7.) Meteorological Phenomena
Launch date: September 30, 2013.
Organization: Alas Peruanas University.
Research objectives: The study of meteorological phenomena.
The actual study of meteorological phenomena is secondary to the development and deployment of sensing instruments and devices designed to sense, and quantify meteorological changes and impacts on Earth, and the mission is primarily designed to verify design and construction methods of meteorological sensing instruments.
8.) Global Tracking
Organization: FPT University of Vietnam.
Research objectives: Improving tracking of ships and forest fires.
Although the primary function this mission entails the training of engineers, it is useful in the tracking of ships at sea, the early detection of forest fires, and the study of the Earth’s magnetic field. Additionally, the satellite gathers information on the lower levels of the atmosphere, and serves as a platform for various radio communication experiments.
9.) Iron Corrosion
Launch date: September 30, 2012.
Organization: Los Gatos High School.
Research objectives: The study of corrosive substances on iron in microgravity.
Since iron and steel is envisioned as a primary construction material in possible future space colonisation programs, this experiment investigates the effects of various corrosive substances on iron in conditions of reduced gravity. In addition, the mission investigated the ability of iron to conduct electrical currents in space.
Launch date: March 1, 2012.
Organization: Fremont Christian High School.
Research objectives: The study of the viability of micro-robots in microgravity.
Since robots will be indispensible in space exploration, it is imperative to study how the harsh conditions of deep space will affect their functionality and reliability. This mission has as its primary function the investigation of the effects of microgravity on the control mechanisms of particularly micro-robots.
Even though cubesats have proved to be spectacularly successful, the technology to use them further afield in the solar system is not yet available. One of the main areas under investigation is the development of propulsion systems that are compact and efficient enough to enable cubesats to perform all of the orbital adjustments required to undertake several-year-long journeys to the outer planets.
For example, there is still much that is not known about the interactions between the magnetic-, and gravitational fields of the gas planets and their satellites, which is an area in which cubesats can play a crucial role- at a small fraction of the cost of designing, constructing, testing, and launching full-sized space probes over periods that can span several years.