Sometimes, Smaller is Better
Geoff Maul works on AeroCube-5. (Photo: Elisa Haber)
As far as buzz words are concerned, “picosatellite” has certainly enjoyed a prolific run in recent years— both inside and outside of the aerospace industry. Small satellites are all the rage in a budget-constricted climate that has forced its brightest minds to innovate and find creative, cost-effective alternatives to the slow-moving, prohibitively expensive processes of the past.
From early on, Aerospace has been on the front lines of this minimalist movement, leaning on the remarkable work of its picosat lab to produce breakthroughs in the design and construction of small satellites. Over the years, Aerospace’s picosat lab has grown from a tiny operation comprised of a few engineers, to a more complex network of colleagues with its own ground control network, a burgeoning list of contracts, and a heightened public profile.
Picosatellites — for those still unfamiliar with the term— are small satellites that weigh anywhere from .1 to 1 kg. They were initially designed as simplistic research vessels for university students to test, build, and explore in a real-world setting. Over time, the technology evolved and scientists and engineers have rapidly improved the capabilities of the once-austere picosats. CubeSats are a cubic form of picosat or nanosatellite that conforms to the CubeSat Standard of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and are launched from a Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). The P-POD is the most widely used interface for American launch vehicles and its design is responsible for the CubeSats’ cubic shape. Aerospace’s particular line of CubeSats is known as the AeroCube.
Aerospace’s David Hinkley, senior projects leader, Mechanics Research Department, has been a driving force behind the picosat lab’s upward progression since its nascent days. Without infrastructure or suppliers for materials, Hinkley and a small group of colleagues began building picosatellites in the Aerospace offices. The aim was to make cheap, small satellites that could provide some measure of technological innovation, while securing available rides on rocket launches. With its first three CubeSat designs— AeroCubes 1, 2 and 3— Aerospace took a number of small, but essential steps in manufacturing a truly dynamic and versatile satellite. “The first ones [Aerocubes] were just simpler,” said Hinkley. “Each flight had a set of goals that, when achieved, was a milestone. In retrospect, you look at the technologies and you’re not impressed. But at that period of time, each was a big deal.”