10 Advantages of CubeSats vs. Conventional Satellites

10 Advantages of CubeSats vs. Conventional Satellites

10 Advantages of CubeSats vs. Conventional Satellites

CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that are approximately 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm in size and weigh around 1 to 3 kg. Compared to traditional satellites that can be the size of a bus and weigh thousands of kilograms, CubeSats offer many advantages in terms of cost, development time, access to space, and capabilities. Here are 10 key benefits of using CubeSats rather than larger conventional satellites:

1. Lower Costs

One of the biggest advantages of CubeSats is their low cost relative to larger satellites. Building and launching a conventional satellite can cost hundreds of millions to even billions of dollars. In contrast, a basic 1U CubeSat may only cost around $50,000 to develop and launch as a secondary payload. Even advanced 3U CubeSats with sophisticated payloads and components may only cost a few hundred thousand dollars.

The lower costs of CubeSats are due to several factors:

  • Miniaturized components: CubeSat components including power systems, attitude control, antennas, and payloads are miniaturized versions of those used on larger spacecraft. The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components further reduces costs.
  • Secondary payload launches: CubeSats can be launched as secondary payloads on rockets, taking advantage of excess capacity at low cost. Dedicated launches are not required.
  • Standardized platform: The CubeSat form factor is standardized, allowing for ease of integration and avoiding custom development costs.
  • Simplified testing: The small size and low cost allows for simplified testing procedures compared to larger satellites. Vibration, thermal, and vacuum testing can all be achieved at lower expense.

The low cost enables CubeSats to be developed and launched by universities, small companies, research groups, and even high schools that could never afford a large satellite program. Even NASA and other space agencies are leveraging CubeSats due to their cost-effectiveness for certain applications.

2. Faster Development Timelines

Another major advantage of CubeSats is that they can be developed and launched in 1-2 years, versus 5-10 years or longer for conventional satellites.

There are several reasons why CubeSat development is significantly faster:

  • Rapid prototyping: The small size enables quick iterations of prototyping designs, testing, and modifications. Components can be easily swapped or changed.
  • Off-the-shelf parts: By using mostly COTS parts instead of custom-designed space-grade components, integration is faster and simpler.
  • Lean processes: CubeSat teams are typically small and nimble, able to make decisions quickly without bureaucracy. Lean development techniques are utilized.
  • Low-cost testing: Again, testing procedures including vibration, thermal, vacuum, and radiation can be performed quickly and cheaply due to the miniature scale.
  • No full-scale engineering model: For large satellites, a full-scale engineering model is typically built for testing prior to the flight model. CubeSats generally go straight from prototype to flight model.
  • Minimal paperwork: Less regulatory paperwork, export compliance, and quality assurance documentation is required compared to major space missions.

For experiments and technology demonstrations that need to get to space quickly, CubeSats provide that capability whereas large satellites do not. The short development timeline also allows CubeSat missions to be more responsive to emerging needs.

3. Regular and Low-Cost Access to Space

CubeSats have opened up access to space to many organizations that traditionally could not afford dedicated launches. This is due to their ability to piggyback as secondary payloads on rocket launches headed to Earth orbit.

Some key ways CubeSats achieve regular, affordable access to space:

  • Launch opportunities: There are frequent launch opportunities for CubeSats as secondary payloads on both government and commercial missions. Over 130 CubeSats were launched in 2018 alone.
  • Low additional integration costs: Adding 1-12U of CubeSat volume to a launch adds minimal integration and fairing complexity for the primary payload.
  • Standardized deployers: CubeSats are deployed from standardized tubes (P-PODs) or rings that contain and protect the small satellites.
  • Dedicated rideshares: Many launches now cluster CubeSats as primary payloads using ESPA rings, enhancing launch flexibility.
  • Eligible for educational & technology demonstrations: CubeSats qualify to fly on NASA and other government launches designated specifically for small experiments or technology demonstrations.

A regular launch cadence provides flexibility in timing CubeSat missions and testing new technologies in space frequently and affordably. For the growing commercial space sector, this launch accessibility enables innovative new space applications.

4. Satellite Constellations and Swarms

The low individual cost of CubeSats allows them to be deployed in large groups and constellations of tens, hundreds, or thousands of satellites. This opens up new capabilities and benefits:

  • Distributed measurements: CubeSat swarms allow taking measurements simultaneously across a large area, enabling improved temporal and spatial data collection.
  • Redundancy: With many CubeSats in a constellation, overall mission reliability is increased since failure of an individual spacecraft has minimal impact.
  • Continuous coverage: A constellation can provide persistent regional or global coverage, with CubeSats handing off tasks. No gaps in collection.
  • Rapid revisit: For observing specific targets like cities or disaster zones, fast revisit times are enabled if there are many satellites in similar orbits.
  • Simplified orbits: Having dozens of CubeSats allows using simplified orbits vs. complex coordinated flight formations. Individual failures have low consequences.
  • Affordability: Launching and operating 100 CubeSats may cost far less than launching one huge, complex satellite.

Already, companies like Planet Labs have deployed over 150 CubeSats for Earth observation. Other planned megagroups of CubeSats will enable communications and Internet of Things connectivity worldwide.

5. Technology Demonstration Platform

The low cost and rapid deployment of CubeSats has made them an ideal platform for testing and demonstrating new spacecraft technologies and components. Key benefits as a technology testbed:

  • Accessible environment: CubeSats provide regular, affordable access to the space radiation, microgravity, and vacuum environment needed to test technologies.
  • Low stakes: Even total failure of a technology demonstration CubeSat can provide valuable data, with minimal loss in investment.
  • Rapid results: Technology experiments can yield results in months versus years. Iterations are also faster.
  • Real flight heritage: Performance data for components and systems tested on CubeSats represent real flight heritage, not just simulated or lab data.
  • Range of technologies: CubeSat missions have tested new propulsion systems, control moment gyroscopes, optical systems, radiation-hardened electronics, materials, and more.
  • Risk retirement: CubeSats allow technologies to be matured from TRL 3 or 4 up to TRL 7 before being incorporated into important operational missions.

For Government space agencies like NASA, CubeSats provide an ideal intermediate step between ground-based R&D and incorporating technologies into flagship programs like Orion or Mars rovers. New space companies similarly leverage CubeSats to raise TRL levels and demonstrate capabilities.

6. Low Mission Risk

In general, CubeSat missions represent substantially lower risk than traditional large satellite programs in several regards:

  • Lower financial risk: Loss of a $100,000 CubeSat represents far lower financial risk compared to loss of a $500 million dollar GEO communications satellite.
  • Focused objectives: CubeSat missions typically have 1-2 key technological or scientific objectives, limiting scope risk. Large satellites often try achieving many complex objectives.
  • Limited liability: Failed CubeSat missions do not incur the major reputational damage and liability that loss of bigger assets trigger.
  • Less stringent reliability: With lower mission cost and risk, CubeSat components reliability requirements can be lower, enabling use of more experiments components vs. space-grade parts.
  • Replaceable assets: Failed CubeSats in a large constellation can simply be replaced with new ones at modest expense. Loss of large satellites can cause major capability gaps.
  • Secondary status: As secondary payloads, CubeSat missions do not carry direct launch liability that primary payloads bears.
  • Standard deployment system: Use of proven CubeSat deployers like the P-POD mitigates integration and deployment risk.

The low cost, focused scope, and standardized platform enable CubeSat missions to take on higher degrees of risk that would be unacceptable for major operational satellite assets. As testbeds, risk-taking should be encouraged.

7. Customized Capabilities

While CubeSats utilize many common off-the-shelf components, their capabilities can be uniquely customized for specialized missions:

  • Flexible payloads: The 1-12U volume allows fitting a wide range of payloads including spectrometers, magnetometers, antenna arrays, imagers, and more.
  • Mission-optimized subsystems: Propulsion, power, communications, and other bus subsystems can be tailored for each mission’s orbital and operational requirements.
  • Miniaturized technologies: Specialized CubeSat components leverage miniaturized sensors, actuators, chips, and materials developed for the smartphone industry.
  • Innovative configurations: CubeSat designs utilize deployable solar panels, pop-out antennae, dragging tethers, and other innovations to maximize capability in the small volume.
  • Coordinated swarms: Configurations of multiple CubeSats can work cooperatively to synthesize capabilities greater than the sum of individual spacecraft.
  • Low-cost customization: Developing specialized CubeSat components is far cheaper than tailoring those for large satellites that require heavy qualification testing.

CubeSat capabilities now range from simple radio beacons and imaging satellites to complex hyperspectral analysis, inter-satellite laser communication networks, and astronomical observatories. Even interplanetary CubeSat missions to Mars and the Moon have been achieved. The flexibility enables endless potential applications.

8. High Education and Public Engagement Value

CubeSats have become a platform of choice for education research projects, with major benefits:

  • Hands-on learning: Students get to design, build, test, and operate real satellites applying classroom knowledge. This experiential learning enrichment is invaluable.
  • Multidisciplinary training: CubeSat projects provide systems engineering, project management, teamwork, and communications skills alongside the space technology experience.
  • Increased diversity: By lowering barriers, CubeSats enable broader participation in space across gender, racial, geographic, and economic dimensions.
  • Public engagement: Citizens worldwide can be involved in CubeSat programs through crowd-funding support, data collection, app development, and taking pictures of flyovers.
  • Workforce training: Through CubeSat programs, a pipeline of motivated students are inspired to pursue space industry careers, helping address the workforce shortage.
  • Gateway to R&D careers: Many engineers and scientists working at major space organizations, companies, and labs got their start working on CubeSats as students.
  • Institutional visibility: High-profile CubeSat missions raise the prestige and visibility of participating schools to attract talent.

By opens up hands-on space hardware development to all students around the world, CubeSats represent a powerful platform for learning, inspiration, community engagement, and driving the future space workforce.

9. Commercialization Gateway

For commercial space startups aspiring to develop full-scale space systems and services, CubeSats offer an ideal gateway:

  • Affordable demonstration: New space companies can demonstrate core technologies or services on CubeSats as proof cases before raising capital for operational satellites.
  • Responsive capability: Developing and launching CubeSats can be done rapidly to establish early capabilities and revenue while waiting on conventional satellites.
  • Credible experience: Successfully executing CubeSat missions gives startups valuable flight heritage and technical credibility for venture investment and government contracts.
  • Market testing: CubeSats allow testing experimental applications and services with customers to refine offerings at lower risk before scale-up.
  • Operational data: Commercial CubeSat constellations generate valuable real-world performance data on large numbers of satellites key for designing later systems.
  • Earth observation data: Imagery and data from CubeSats can be commercialized and sold to tide over companies as they raise funds for full infrastructure roll-out.

Many companies like SpaceX, Spire, and Astrocast leveraged CubeSats in their early stages before expanding to large satellite fleets and thriving businesses. For space entrepreneurs, CubeSats provide the ideal path to space.

10. Future Building Blocks of Larger Systems

Rather than being limited to staying nano-scale, CubeSats are increasingly being used as building blocks of larger and more capable systems:

  • Distributed modules: Networks of interconnected CubeSats can work cooperatively as sensor arrays, communications relays, or distributed computers.
  • Logistics support: CubeSats are ideal for cost-effective on-orbit inspection, repair drones, fuel depots, debris removal systems, and other support roles around large assets.
  • In-orbit assembly: CubeSats with docking ports enable assembly of larger spacecraft or instruments like telescopes using simpler launches of the modular parts.
  • Mothership deployment: CubeSats carried as payloads on large spacecraft can subsequently be deployed for additional missions, either near mothership or propelled further.
  • Secondary spacecraft: CubeSats provide low-cost yet functional secondary spacecraft that can operate alongside flagship explorer and science missions.
  • LEO infrastructure: Private space stations, orbital fuel depots, satellite inspection systems, debris mitigation networks, and other infrastructure could be built from modular CubeSats.

Like transitioning from vacuum tubes to transistors, CubeSats are becoming basic building blocks of scalable space systems and infrastructure due to their simplicity, reliability, interoperability, and low cost.

CubeSat Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How are CubeSats deployed from rockets?

A: Most CubeSats are launched and deployed using a spring-loaded box called the Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). The CubeSats slide into the P-POD, which is integrated onto the launch vehicle. When the rocket reaches orbit, the P-POD lid opens and releases the CubeSats with a spring force. Larger groups of CubeSats may use deployment rings or free-flyer units.

Q: What kinds of orbits are used for CubeSat missions?

A: Common CubeSat orbits include Low Earth Orbit (LEO) between 250-650 km altitude, Sun-synchronous orbits around 650 km altitude, and elliptical transfer orbits as rideshares with GEO communications satellites. Highly elliptical, polar, and geosynchronous orbits have also been used for specialized CubeSat missions.

Q: How long do CubeSat missions typically last?

A: Many CubeSats have short mission lifetimes from weeks to a few years, due to their low orbit decay and limited power budget. However, some CubeSats have operated for 5+ years through careful power management and higher orbital altitudes. Planned constellations aim for 2-5 year lifetimes per CubeSat.

Q: What types of payloads and experiments can CubeSats support?

A: CubeSats have hosted diverse payloads including simple beacon transmitters, Earth imagers, space environment sensors, technology demos, radiation experiments, biological studies, astronomical observations, IoT modems, and even CubeSat-to-CubeSat laser communication links.

Q: Do CubeSats have any mechanisms or actuators?

A: Yes, some CubeSats have used simple mechanisms like spring-loaded booms, pivoting solar panels, magnetorquer coils, reaction wheels, thrusters, and paraffin-based actuators. The nano-scale mechanisms are tailored to minimize size, weight, and power.

Q: How are the positions and orientations of CubeSats controlled in space?

A: Most CubeSats use magnetic coils called magnetorquers to align themselves in the Earth’s magnetic field for basic orientation control. More advanced CubeSats utilize reaction wheels, thrusters, or momentum wheels to enable precision pointing and complex maneuvers.

Q: What are the main communications frequencies and data rates for CubeSats?

A: Typical CubeSat radios use UHF (300-450 MHz uplink, 1200-2400 MHz downlink) or S-band (2 GHz uplink, 2.4 or 3.4 GHz downlink) frequencies, with data rates on the order of 9600 bps to 10 Mbps depending on power, antenna size, and orbit.

Q: How is electrical power generated and stored on CubeSats?

A: Fixed or deployable solar panels coupled with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are used on most CubeSats for power generation and storage. Some advanced CubeSats have experimented with alternative energy harvesting technologies, fuel cells, or small radioisotope generators.

Q: What is the role of CubeSats in NASA’s space exploration plans?

A: NASA utilizes CubeSats for economical technology demonstrations and scientific research to support its deep space human exploration and science goals. CubeSats may also play future roles for Mars/Moon communications, navigation, reconnaissance, and in situ resource prospecting.

Q: Do CubeSats contribute to the problem of space debris?

A: CubeSats in low orbits re-enter the atmosphere within a few years due to orbital decay. Responsible CubeSat operators comply with end-of-life deorbit guidelines. Improved design standards will minimize any debris contributions from future CubeSat constellations.

Q: How are CubeSats impacting the traditional space industry and major aerospace companies?

A: The rise of CubeSats is pushing large aerospace firms to develop smaller satellites and launch vehicles. CubeSats also allow new commercial space companies to disrupt established players.