NASA Has Big Plans for Tiny CubeSats

CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station.
CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Hrybyk)

Tiny CubeSats could soon play a big role in space exploration.

For example, NASA is set to launch one of these miniature satellites — the "IceCube" craft, which is the size of a loaf of bread —  in 2016 to test technology for a future mission. The result could be big savings in development costs down the road, IceCube team members say.

"We're using IceCube to test a radiometer that we want to fly on a big space mission," Jeffrey Piepmeier, associate head of the microwave instruments and technology branch at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. "Climate scientists have never used this frequency to measure cloud ice from space before."

IceCube isn't the only CubeSat NASA plans to launch in the near future. The agency also aims to loft a CubeSat called Dellingr in March 2015. On board will be a magnetometer intended to help scientists understand how the magnetic field of the Earth fluctuates, which, in turn, will teach them about the effect of solar flares and other space weather on our planet.

The National Science Foundation-funded Firefly CubeSat, which is just big enough to fit three cans of soda. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Hrybyk)

Bantam craft such as Dellingr can deliver sizable scientific returns with a relatively modest investment of time and money, researchers say.

"Every pound that you send into space costs a phenomenal amount of money," said Todd Bonalsky, an electrical engineer at NASA Goddard. "Hence the investment in CubeSats, which are tiny, complete satellites that are cheaper and easier to build than their larger counterparts."

But CubeSats aren't the answer for every mission, NASA officials caution. While mobile phone technology, for example, has shrunk the power requirements for these tiny satellites, they don't have the juice to run some of NASA's more powerful instruments.

By their nature, however, CubeSats are considered almost disposable technology. These small and relatively cheap spacecraft can be launched in bunches rather than as single missions. This means that multiple copies of an instrument can be tested at a low cost, or that scientists can collect data from several satellites instead of just one.

"Instead of pouring money into one big satellite, we try to make a swarm," said Robert Clayton, an intern at NASA Goddard from Dartmouth College. "It's OK if we lose two or three from our swarm of 20. We instead focus on making each CubeSat as cheap and reproducible as possible."

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace