Washington DC: Imagine a fully instrumented satellite the size of a half-gallon milk carton.
Small low-cost satellite payloads, built mainly by students and hitching rides into orbit on Air Force and NASA launch vehicles, have been making recent history in successes many herald as a “space revolution.”
Called cubesats for the roughly four-inch-cubed dimensions of their basic building elements, each one is stacked with modern, smart-phone-like electronics and tiny scientific instruments.
Several cubesat projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) are currently operating in orbit, making first-of-their-kind experiments in space and providing new measurements that help scientists understand how the Earth’s upper atmosphere responds to solar activity.
And more are on the way.
Several other payloads are already built and awaiting launch this summer with their host spacecraft. Yet others are in the process of being constructed or designed, all poised to provide new scientific measurements to answer questions in space and atmospheric science.
But this is just the beginning, say scientists.
The future of cubesat projects is only limited by the imagination, researchers believe. The capabilities of cubesat systems are growing at an ever-increasing rate as technological advances are made.
Opportunities are many to accelerate this technology through engineering research in an array of fields, including materials research, 3-D printing, sensor miniaturization, micro-electro-mechanical systems, systems engineering, radio science, communication algorithms and networks.
Private firms and government agencies are also adopting the cubesat concept as a low-cost way of flying payloads in space while creating important educational opportunities for future leaders of industry.
The projects stimulate widespread excitement and involve a unique set of skills and interests. They appeal, say researchers, to a broader range of participants than more traditional science and engineering projects.
What will it take for future cubesat projects to provide the crucial measurements from space needed to solve critical societal problems, such as climate change, land use and resource management, pollution and disaster monitoring, communication and space weather?