What is a CubeSat

Print a 3D model of a CubeSat.

What is a CubeSat?

A CubeSat is a square-shaped miniature satellite (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm—roughly the size of a Rubik's cube), weighing about 1 kg. A CubeSat can be used alone (1 unit) or in groups of multiple units (maximum 24 units).

CubeSats can be used alone or stacked to suit the needs of a specific mission. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Four types of missions

Type de mission Description Example
Technology demonstration

The harsh environment of space is the ultimate test bed. CubeSats can help test new instruments or materials and validate their readiness to be integrated into a more complex space mission.

A CubeSat could be used to study the performance of a new thermal imaging camera by using it with different settings to evaluate the quality of images captured and the overall reliability of the instrument.

Science

CubeSats can carry small science instruments to conduct an experiment or take measurements from space.

It could collect information on the magnetic field to better understand and predict its fluctuations in order to improve earthquake detection.

Educational projects

CubeSats can provide students with a unique hands-on experience in developing space missions from design, to launch and operations.

A CubeSat could be used by students to track the movement of wild animals, like herds of reindeer or polar bears, by collecting radio signals emitted from collars attached to the animals.

Commercial

CubeSats can be used for commercial applications, like providing telecommunications services or capturing Earth observation images.

A company owning a CubeSat equipped with a camera could sell high-resolution images of the Earth to clients in agriculture, city planning or business intelligence.

Thinking inside the box

Just like any satellite, CubeSats are custom built to the specific requirements of their mission and have at least three things in common:

  1. The antenna and radio communication system, which sends and receives information to and from Earth.
  2. The power source, like a solar panel or simply a battery.
  3. The computer, which executes instructions to ensure proper functioning of the satellite.

The main cubic structure is made of aluminum and serves to hold the above components along with others such as cameras, sensors or scientific payloads. In addition, antennas and solar panels can be installed on the exterior of the structure.

 Did you know?

How are CubeSats launched into space?

CubeSats tend to hitch a ride into space using extra space available on rockets. They are packed in a container which, with the push of a button, activates a spring that ejects the CubeSats into space. CubeSats can also be deployed from the International Space Station by using the same technique from the airlock in the Japanese module. Like other satellites, they can be flown alone or in a constellation network.

Successful launch of Ex-Alta 1, University of Alberta's CubeSat, from the International Space Station

Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA.

Why size matters

Artificial satellites come in a variety of sizes ranging from one you can hold in your hand to the size of a school bus. Their dimension and costs are mostly determined by the complexity and type of their instruments (commonly known as payloads). In recent years, thanks to the miniaturization of space technologies, satellites have become smaller for a number of reasons, the first being the cost associated with assembly and launch.

Credit: European Space Agency

How heavy is a satellite?

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

How heavy is a satellite? - Text version

The title of this infographic is How Heavy is a Satellite? It features five categories of satellites according to their weight.

First category: large satellite, featuring an image of RADARSAT-2 as an example. Large satellites weigh over 1,000 kilograms. An illustration of a rhino is shown for comparison purposes.

Second category: medium satellite, featuring an image of CASSIOPE as an example. Medium satellites weigh between 500 kilograms and 1,000 kilograms. An illustration of a buffalo is shown for comparison purposes.

Third category: mini satellite, featuring an image of SCISAT as an example. Mini satellites weigh between 100 kilograms and 350 kilograms. An illustration of a lion is shown for comparison purposes.

Fourth category: microsatellite, featuring an image of M3MSat as an example. Microsatellites weigh between 10 kilograms and 100 kilograms. An illustration of a wolf is shown for comparison purposes.

Fifth category: nanosatellite, including the CubeSat, featuring an image of the Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat. Nanosatellites weigh between 1 kilogram and 10 kilograms. An illustration of a raccoon is shown for comparison purposes. CubeSats weigh 1 kilogram per unit. An illustration of a duck is shown for comparison purposes.

Note: These weights are approximations.

The benefits of using CubeSats

Pros

Cons

Who uses CubeSats?

CubeSat rapidly expanded beyond educational purposes and created its own niche with government, industry and academia, who are collaborating to increase its technological capabilities.

Schools

CubeSats do the following:

Collin Cupido and Charles Nokes are part of the team of students from the University of Alberta that received funding from the Canadian Space Agency to build the Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat and participate in the international QB50 mission. (Credit: Collin Cupido, University of Alberta)

Government and industry

CubeSats are a game changer; labelled as faster, smaller, smarter and cheaper, they are valuable to government and industry for:

Looking to the future

CubeSats are revolutionizing access to space: developers and users are eagerly taking advantage of this new platform to increase research and development activities conducted in space.

CubeSats are even being used for interplanetary missions: NASA's Mars Cube One (MarCO) will embark on a mission to Mars in . CubeSats will offer an experimental communications service relaying information to Earth during atmospheric entry and landing.

Illustration depicting the future MarCO mission, during which two CubeSats will fly by Mars while the InSight lander is touching down on the red planet. (Credit: NASA)

CUBESAT – It’s Hip to be Square!

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

CubeSat – It’s Hip to be Square! - Text version

First chart

The dimensions of a CubeSat are illustrated. It is 10 centimetres on each side, making it similar in size to a Rubik’s cube. A graphic shows that a CubeSat can be used alone, or a maximum of 24 CubeSats can be stacked.

Second chart

The components of a CubeSat are as follows: an antenna, a computer, a power source, and an instrument.

Third chart

The advantages of a CubeSat are as follows:

  • built rapidly (within 24 months)
  • simple technology (purchased off-the-shelf)
  • simple to design
  • no space debris generated (they burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry)
  • low cost

Fourth chart

CubeSats are used for 4 types of missions: technology demonstration, scientific research, educational project, and commercial.

Fifth chart

For comparative purposes, a graphic shows the orbits of various objects in the atmosphere and in space. There is an airplane at 10 kilometres above the Earth, a stratospheric balloon between 10 kilometres and 50 kilometres above the Earth, a meteorite at 100 kilometres above the Earth, and the International Space Station and a CubeSat at 400 kilometres above the Earth.

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