UK to Launch Homegrown Mini-Satellite Cube
An artist's interpretation of a British Cubesat UKube 1.
Credit: Clyde Space

The UK Space Agency has announced it will develop and launch a miniature satellite to be used for inexpensive science missions in low-Earth orbit.

Shaped like a cube and potentially smaller than a home computer, this type of satellite allows scientists to research cutting-edge space technology quickly and at relatively low cost, UK Space Agency chief executive David Williams said.

The UK model will be one of a series of spacecraft called Cubesats, which are simple, tiny and inexpensive. These features make CubeSats capable of deploying on speedy timescales that accommodate numerous missions, agency officials said.

"Britain?s first CubeSat will bring major benefits to the UK space industry," said David Willetts, the UK's minister of state for universities and science. "Firms will now have a cheap and quick way to test their latest prototypes."

For the UK's model, named UKube 1, the agency will select the most innovative ideas for a payload from a competition open to teams from academia and private industry. The winning proposal will launch in 2011 in a CubeSet designed and manufactured by the Glasgow, Scotland-based company Clyde Space Ltd.

Eventually, the CubeSat will grant engineers an arena to test new technologies before space agencies incorporate them into risky missions.???

"As with all space related business, the best way to market space products is through their successful demonstration in orbit," said Clyde Space CEO Craig Clark.

Previous CubeSat missions include a NASA study that sent bacteria inside a miniature lab to investigate how spaceflight affects the human body. The NASA Firefly project, another CubeSat venture, is examining the relationship between lightning and gamma-ray radiation flashes in the Earth's upper atmosphere.

Particularly well-suited to low orbit missions, the CubeSat has special potential for research into space weather, spacecraft damage, atmospheric science, and high energy particle radiation, UK Space Agency officials said. And because satellites that orbit low revolve faster around the planet, these missions could be helpful for advanced disaster warnings for tsunamis, bush-fires and other emergencies, as well as to create real-time maps of the Earth.

The UK's Space Agency also hopes the CubeSat mission can help inspire students.

"[CubeSats] can easily be taken to schools and students can be engaged before and after launch, including anything from mission ideas, hands on development, operations and data analysis," said UK Space Agency head of education Jeremy Curtis. "They are a great way to attract and train a future generation of engineers."