Space exploration is expensive.
So much so, that for most of the
“Space Age,” governments were the
only entities capable of footing the
bill for "Where No Man Has Gone
Before." However, universities and at
least one high school (Thomas
Jefferson High School for Science
and Technology) have or are now
designing, building, and launching
their own satellites.
This month, I want to describe
this new breed of satellites. Later, I’ll
describe where to purchase kits and
a model that I’m designing as a
stepping stone to the real thing. I
plan to call this model: My First
Satellites in Education
Back in 1999, Professors Bob
Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari utilized a
class project to help their Stanford
students become better aerospace
engineers. They assigned them the
task of building two Earth-orbiting
satellites: Opal and Sapphire. The
satellites were microsatellites —
hexagonal airframes 12 inches tall,
18 inches across, and weighing 50
pounds. Their telemetry radios were
off-the-shelf amateur radios with an
output between three and five watts.
Over time, their students kept
adding more subsystems to the two
satellites. Gradually, the satellites
became too expensive and far from
ever being launched. Now, their
students would never complete this
practical satellite application, much
less get it off the ground. However,
Dr. Twiggs and Puig-Suari recognized
a solution hidden in the satellite
named Opal. Opal contained
picosatellites — tiny satellites that
Opal would release after reaching
They used the limited volumes
and weights of the Opal picosatellites
as a standard to force their students
to innovate small lightweight
satellites. Because of the satellite’s
limited volume and mass, students
were unable to expand the capability
of the satellite. This left them with a
satellite they could finish within two
years, or during the length of their
We call this standard the
CubeSat and it’s becoming more
popular. However, it took some time.
Initially, many in industry felt that
CubeSats were toys at best. Today,
most realize that CubeSats are an
entirely new paradigm in satellite
design with lots of potential. That
potential even includes the
exploration of distant planets.
The basic CubeSat is a 10 cm
cube (for a volume of one liter)
weighing no more than one kilogram.
This is called a one unit, or 1U
CubeSat. There are 2U and 3U
CubeSats for satellites needing more
avionics. These larger units are
essentially stacks of 1U CubeSats.
The four vertical edges of a
CubeSat are low friction metal rails to
which the airframe sides are
attached. The airframe is constructed
from aluminum panels — a material
72 December 2014
"Reach low orbit and
you're halfway to
anywhere in the solar
■ BY L. PAUL VERHAGE NEAR SPACE
CubeSats — Part 1
Photograph from NASA.
You really get a scale of a CubeSat's size in this picture.
You can see solar cells protected in cover slips that are clipped to the
airframe, along with one of the antennas in its deployed position.
Image courtesy of NASA.