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Cubesats: how you can be involved in space exploration without spending millions

Did you know that for the price of a brand new large ute, you could instead send your very own small satellite to the International Space Station and out into orbit?

Cubesats – lunchbox-sized satellites that can undertake space-based experiments, make observations or relay communication signals – are currently being used by NASA to help try to find water on the Moon and aid their astronauts on future missions there.

Those missions could well include the first woman and the first Black man to undertake a lunar mission after Christina Koch and Victor Glover were named in the crew for Artemis II, which is expected to fly-by the Moon in 2024.

But crucially, it’s not just billion-dollar national space agencies that can take advantage of the versatility and low cost of tiny cubesats.

Given the components can be bought commercially off-the-shelf, they offer the chance for businesses and organisations to get involved who might never have conceived of exploring space.

UNSW Sydney’s Professor Andrew Dempster is the Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) and says many people may not understand how simple it is nowadays to get something into space.

“The real benefit of cubesats is their plug-and-play nature,” he says. “If anybody wants to launch a cubesat it’s easy to buy all the spacecraft equipment you need and then design and build whatever payload you want to integrate.

“That might be a sensor to measure something in or from space, a camera for taking images, or even broadcasting communications over a wide area by sending the signal up into space and redirecting it back down to Earth.

“Many people think it costs millions of dollars to launch a satellite into space – and that’s true for the traditional fully sized satellites. But for a cubesat it might only be $100,000-$150,000 to buy all the components and pay for it to be launched.

“There are companies, such as NanoRacks, who are involved with the International Space Station and will put your cubesat on a cargo spacecraft to the ISS and then release it into space from a specially designed deployment pod.”

Prof. Dempster says there are many opportunities for businesses, industries and schools around Australia to take an interest in cubesats, either in terms of their design and production, or the payloads that can be put onto them.

So far the potential remains largely untapped, although the upcoming CubeSatPlus Innovation & Development Workshop being run by ACSER is trying to change all that.

“We talk about ‘spinning in’. That is, people in other industries who may be interested in space but at the moment they think it’s just too hard, or just too expensive.

“For them, cubesats are possibly a great place to start. We know there are services that may be useful to people and businesses outside the space sector. It’s just about informing them and linking them to the relevant experts.

“It might not be obvious how what you are doing can be associated with and benefit from space in general and cubesats in particular. But people involved with 3D printing, or those who make pressure vessels, they may never have considered space applications – but that kind of work could be very useful on some space missions.

“Similarly, tests that you can do on materials or components in space can be very useful, such as testing in a vacuum, or testing the effects of radiation.”

Despite their versatility, cubesats unfortunately can suffer from reliability issues.

A NASA report from 2019 which analysed the success rate of small-satellite missions launched between the years 2000 and 2016 admitted: “The implication of the data is that for modern small satellite missions, almost one out of every two small satellite missions will result in either a total or a partial mission failure.”

Prof. Dempster is hopeful that discussions between experts in the space industry will make cubesats more robust and less likely to fail.

“We call this topic ‘Mission Assurance’, because regrettably what happens with too many cubesats is they get launched and they simply don’t work,” he says.

“We want cubesats to be more reliable. That is to manage the existing risks better or create developments that overcome some of the risks.””

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