Think Big, Fly Small

The increasing popularity and functionality of small satellites has helped them move beyond technology demonstration and into the realm of commercial and governmental applications.

In November 2013, a single Minotaur rocket carried 29 satellites into orbit, setting a new record for the most satellites deployed in a single launch. Less than two days later, a single Dnepr beat that record, lifting 32 satellites into orbit. Such launch rates—inconceivable just a few years ago—are rendered all the more remarkable considering that many of these satellites were not sponsored by well-funded government agencies but by universities and small private entities.

Evidently, the space industry is starting to realize the potential of small satellites. Indeed, the last decade has seen a substantial boom in their development, both domestically and internationally. Much of this growth can be attributed to the popularity of CubeSats, a well-known subclass of small satellites. However, CubeSats are only part of this rapidly expanding picture. Furthermore, it appears that small satellites are starting to move beyond the demonstration phase to provide the performance and reliability needed for commercial ventures and governmental applications.

The CubeSat Revolution

CubeSats derive their name from the so-called “1U” building block, which is a 10 × 10 × 10 centimeter cube, typically weighing around 1 kilogram. Larger CubeSats are built by stacking these units. Bob Twiggs (then at Stanford University) developed the initial concept in early 1999 after working with The Aerospace Corporation on his Orbiting Picosatellite Automated Launcher (OPAL) microsatellite. Jordi Puig-Suari from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo helped refine the concept and create the specifications.

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This article is part of the Fall 2014 issue of Crosslink, “Pushing the Boundaries of Space”. The article is also available in pdf format.