What if you could take your own pictures or videos from space? Or conduct scientific experiments from space? Have your own amateur radio relay? Communicate via voice or video with family, friends, or business associates in remote places? Or even collect data in space to create space art? What if that personal satellite cost about the same as a PC or a laptop?
That might be possible very soon.
See, the first satellites were pretty small. Sputnik was only a little bigger than a basketball, for example. But throughout the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, satellites became bigger and bigger as their capabilities and coverage were expanded until many of the communication satellites that were launched were the size of buses, as was the Hubble Space Telescope. These satellites can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and launching them into orbit can cost hundreds of millions of dollars as well — certainly not an amount that ordinary people or even universities could afford.
In 1999, two professors, Jordi Puig-Suari from CalPoly San Luis Obispo and Bob Twiggs from Stanford University, came up with a standard design for a small, cube-shaped satellite that could be used to teach engineering students how to design, build, and launch satellites. This standard became known as the CubeSat, and it is 10 cm, or about 4 inches, on a side. CubeSats are usually powered by solar panels and include a communication system. In addition, it may have attitude control and a camera or other sensors. The CubeSat specification allows the length of the satellite to be expanded in multiples of the single, standard cube. Thus, the base cube size is known as 1U for “1-unit”, and adding another cube length to the design makes it 2U. Similarly, adding a third cube length makes it a 3U CubeSat.
Since 2003 when the first 7 CubeSats launched, 94 universities across the globe (and one U.S. high school) have launched CubeSats of various sizes. Various military organizations have launched CubeSats. NASA has launched 25, including several 3U CubeSats (GeneSat-1, PharmaSat, ) to conduct biological experiments in orbit. There is even a company called Planet which is using CubeSats commercially. Planet has launched 145 3U CubeSats over the last 3.5 years and currently has 63 active CubeSats which image the surface of the Earth every day. They offer the images to various groups and customers to monitor the environment, defense and intelligence, resources, market intelligence or emergency management. For individuals, a 1U CubeSat kit can be purchased for about $15,000 from a company called Interorbital Systems, located at the Mojave Air and Space Port. That price tag includes launching it into orbit, although there is a fairly long waiting list for launch at Interorbital since they’re still testing their rockets. Other companies (Pumpkin, GomSpace) offer CubeSat kits and platforms for sale as well, although the launch costs are not free for those. CubeSats typically launch either as a secondary payload when larger satellites are launched, or they are delivered to the ISS when cargo deliveries are made, to be deployed from the ISS into the proper orbit.
Professor Twiggs noticed that as CubeSats became more accepted in the space industry, launch costs increased as demand for CubeSat launches increased. As a result, universities were priced out of being able to launch their own satellites. Since cell phone technology was proving that the processors and cameras could be made smaller, he and his students at Morehead State University in Kentucky devised an even smaller standard, which they rolled out in 2009 as the PocketQube (also PocketQub or PocketCube). This cube is 5 cm, or about 2 inches, on a side, and like the larger CubeSat standard, can be expanded by multiples of the cube – in this case the larger sizes are called 1.5P and 2.5P. Now, eight of these PocketQubes could launch for the same price as a single 1U CubeSat. PocketQube kits sell for just over $10,000 and can be launched for $20,000 or more. So far, four PocketQubes have launched, with more launches planned for the next 1.5 years.
In April, Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration announced an even smaller satellite size. They devised a 3-cm cube standard they call the SunCube, or FemtoSat. Like the CubeSats and the PocketQubes, the SunCubes can be stacked to make larger satellites – the standard published by ASU includes 1F and 3F. They predict the SunCubes can be built for less than $1,000 and launched for an additional $1,000 to the ISS, or launched directly to LEO for $3,000. The SunCube team at Arizona State hopes to send a prototype into space in the next year.
Right now, building and launching a 1U CubeSat costs about the same as a house in the Midwest. The PocketQube can be built and launched for about the cost of a car. And the SunCube, or FemtoCube, is likely to cost about the same as a high end PC or laptop. As the cost of the electronics comes down, there could be some reduction in the cost of building these small satellites, or more capabilities added to the satellites, or both. The biggest hurdle is the launch cost, however. There are at least 20 launch vehicles in development around the world designed specifically for small spacecraft, which can hopefully reduce the launch costs.
Another thing to keep in mind about possible personal satellites is that these small satellites have a short life – as short as 1 – 2 months, possibly as long as 2 years. They will likely be low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, their orbits designed to decay so they burn up in the atmosphere at the end of life and don’t become space debris which could endanger other spacecraft.
These three small satellite standards, the CubeSat, the PocketQube, and the SunCube, are designed to provide the size of the exterior of the satellite and do not place any requirements on what goes inside the satellite. This gives developers the flexibility to improve the capabilities of the satellites as technology shrinks and improves. The success of the CubeSat proves that engineers are creative enough to design useful payloads to fit any given constraints. Thus, I think we can expect interesting designs and applications from personal users as interest in personal satellites grows. When computers were first marketed for home use, critics scoffed at the idea of personal computers. They could not have foreseen how personal computers would influence nearly every aspect of our lives. Personal satellites are now at a similar stage – and they have the potential to revolutionize space the way personal computers have changed our homes.