Next month, we will launch a crowdfunding campaign for NOVA, our crowd-flyable CubeSat.
The primary goal of this campaign will be to fund the supporting infrastructure for the mission. This will include a satellite assembly lab and ground station, plus the remaining assets typically required for any mission of this kind.
We also have something to offer for backers that are interested in developing their own missions.
The highest-tier reward of the crowdfunding campaign will be microNOVA, a CubeSat development kit packed into a 3D printed 1U (10 x 10 x 10 cm) frame. This hardware product can be utilised for fast prototyping of CubeSat-specific applications, algorithms, or mission scenarios. Plus, software created through this development kit will be compatible with our future orbital mission, NOVA, that we aim to launch in Q4 2021!
For the next ten years, cubesats missions continued to be launched at a rate of few per year. Many of the cubesats were continuing to be built by university teams, but some came from government space agencies and emerging New Space industry players. There were no special purpose launch vehicles for this type of satellites, so users had to rely on rideshare opportunities and use low-cost providers that relied on refurbished ICBMs as launch vehicles.
But this kind of rockets don’t have the best reliability record. Sometimes it caused substantial setbacks, such as one that happened in July 2006 when Dnepr space rocket crashed soon after launch, bringing down 22 cubesats with it. While it was obviously disappointing for mission designers, many of those cubesats had flight spares available and were relaunched in the later years. Typically, a small budget cubesat of this period had an imaging camera and one other additional science experiment, such as radio communications device or particle detector but sometimes more unusual mission. In this chapter we’ll try to describe a few of more interesting examples.
The first the mission on our list was called CUTE 1.7+APD. It was a 2U cubesat built by a Japanese team from Tokyo Institute of Technology. It had an interesting distinction of using a Windows CE PDA from Hitachi as a primary onboard computer. An was launched in February 2006 and operated successfully for about a month. However, the consumer PDA is clearly not the best possible option for a space mission on-board computer. The satellite stopped responding in March of the same year, most likely due to radiation-triggered hardware fault.
Other interesting missions during these years were various tests of tethers – wires used to connect structures in space. One such research program was MEPSI, and it included a number of nanosatellites designed by DARPA. While not implemented in any standard form-factor, they were pretty close in dimensions and mass to regular cubesats. There were deployed in pairs from Space Shuttle Endeavour in November 2002 and again from Space Shuttle Discovery in December 2006. The purpose of these missions was to test radar detection of two satellites connected by tether. This program was terminated before the conclusive results were obtained but the second pair operated in space for a few days at least.
MAST was another experiment with tethers, this time built by Tethers Unlimited and launched in 2007. It was composed of a mother and daughter satellites connected by 1 km long tether that was supposed to deploy after launch. The daughter satellite would climb along this tether back and forth to prove feasibility of this architecture. But unfortunately, this mission ended in failure as well. The satellites were operational, but the tether didn’t deploy. Here is the illustration of how it would look in deployed state:
As a rule, mechanical failures are quite common in space environment. Cold welding or outgassing can interfere with moving parts and connections or stick them together. Dynamics of mechanical structures in microgravity and vacuum conditions are very different from the ones on the ground. Testing these aspects requires specialized facilities. There is a tower in Bremen, Germany that allows to drop various experiments for a few seconds of microgravity. And one of our teammates has actually used this facility for his own research project, namely Drop Your Thesis. But this will be a story for another time.
Astrobiology (biological experiments in space) was another emerging research area that cubesats were used for.. The first mission of this kind was GENESAT, a 3U cubesat launched in December 2006, that was also the first cubesat from NASA. Its mission was to measure levels of protein activity in cultured bacteria. It was using a number of small cells filled with bacterial cultures that were brought to life in space using the sugar solution. Then special LED triggered the protein to emit some level of light and that was the essence of this biological experiment.
The next important area tried via cubesat technology was solar sail technology. This type of propulsion holds a lot of promise for space exploration, both now near and in the future. It also helps that this tech can be tested on a smaller scale before building full-scale solutions. The first solar sail mission was NanoSail-D. It gained a bit of infamy as it was attempted to be launched on SpaceX Falcon 1 in 2008. But unfortunately, it was launched on the 3rd flight of Falcon 1 which wasn’t a successful one. This also highlights the importance of having a flight spare – because it was launched as NanoSail-D2 in 2010, and this time it was a successful mission. Notably, the launcher used (Minotaur IV) was a converted ICBM, but an American one. That cubesat was deployed in a slightly unusual manner, from inside another satellite called FASTSAT. There was a bit of drama in this story! The satellite didn’t deploy immediately and was stuck to a mother satellite for a while. But somehow is able to detach itself a few weeks later and it became operational. It had no solar panels, so it was operating on batteries only and didn’t live for long. But nevertheless, it was a successful mission and had the honour of the first successful cubesat mission, equipped with solar sail.
To conclude the story, it should be mentioned that between in years 2003 to 2012 the rate of cubesats launches was relatively low. A few per year usually, with up to 25 in year 2012, excluding the unsuccessful launches. The big breakthrough in launch numbers came next year. But this will be the topic for the next part of our cubesat history series.
Children are both the makers and the markers of healthy, sustainable societies. According to UNICEF, children represent one third of the world’s population, in today’s numbers, that would be approximately, 2.2 billion children and they represent a significant factor for the future development of the society on a planetary scale.
Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. Sustainability has a lot of definitions, but, regarding humanity, it all comes to one thing, the ability to thrive and advance as a race, species. We as humans are a race that leans towards technology. We see the technology as an answer and a solution to sustainability. Therefore, we should motivate and educate our legacy to follow that path. There are many possibilities and ways to use technology to achieve and maintain a sustainable society, but we will consider only one of them.
Space exploration is one possible tool that might allow humanity to achieve and maintain a sustainable society. We are very much dependent on resources that might and eventually will be drained, exhausted on our beloved planet. The only other place to find resources is the vast space. We need engineers in order to explore and promote space exploration, we should encourage our legacy to follow that path. Motivation and encouragement is not always easy when it comes to young minds. Children learn and explore through play. Their curiosity is limitless, pure and naïve.
There are many tools that will help us, adults, to guide the young engineers, explorers and innovators. Most of them are simple, free and at hand. Read to them, talk to them and tell them about the planets, moons, stars. Make paper rockets, tell them a story about Titan, Saturn’s moon, guide them on a journey that will feed their imagination.
Hands-on learning is another way. Children love to create and use their hands. Young and gifted makers and engineers could play with different building block and create spaceships and orbital stations.
Only by building they can build the confidence to continue exploring. As adults, we need to give an example, we need to teach them to never give up, learn every day and keep looking into the future. So, to summarize, how do we get more young space explorers? By letting them explore the universe using their imagination.
We’d like to report our story of participating in this amazing event, organized by US Air Force Research Laboratory and DoD Defence Digital Service. It was our first CTF and most of our team members met each other a few days beforehand. We didn’t score very high, but had great fun nevertheless. Congrats to the top 10 teams on the leaderboard – they will advance to finals of this competition:
More than 1300 teams participated and here is the total points distribution for all teams (you can see the difficulty curve!):
The event focus was definitely more on space and less so on cybersecurity. Most of the challenges required knowledge of technologies and subjects familiar to people in aerospace industry. Here is a list of selected challenges we found most interesting, in various categories :
“Attitude adjustment” and “Space Book” – A number of boresight reference vectors collected by star tracker and catalog reference vectors are provided. Use this information to determine attitude quaternion in order to claim those challenges.
“Digital filters, Meh” – Using provided MatLab/Octave code, identify the bug in the attitude control algorithm and trip error condition to capture the flag. Requires understanding of quaternion operations and control theory.
“Magic Bus” – extract information from device memory, accessible through I2C bus (commonly used on cubesats). We can tantalizingly close to solving this challenge, but ran out of time.
“Can you hear me now?” – Implement XTCE decoder for a telemetry stream from TCP socket. XTCE is a format for spacecraft data telemetry specified in XML and in use by NASA and ESA (https://www.omg.org/xtce/index.htm).
“Talk to me, Goose” – using the design document of the satellite and Cosmos software, trigger the satellite into revealing the flag. Previous challenge of creating XTCE decoder will come handy here.
“Vax the Sat” – login into a virtual VAX system and figure out what to do next 🙂
Most of the challenges in this category revolved about decoding information from analog data, figuring out demodulation schemes, frequency spectrum and then finding out weaknesses in communication protocols. We came very close to solve one of these challenges, but got stuck at the final step. Minimodem (http://www.whence.com/minimodem/) and multimon-ng (https://github.com/EliasOenal/multimon-ng ) were very useful here.
“That’s not on my calendar” – another cFS/Cosmos challenge.
Our company will be represented at Hack-a-Sat qualification round on May 22-24, 2020 by Exodus Orbitals Alliance team. We’ll be reporting about this exciting event as much as we can! Read more about it here: https://www.hackasat.com.
It is not too late to join our team! Register at the link above and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cubesats (or nanosatellites) represent an important chapter in the history of New Space that may have been eclipsed by more glamorous stories of SpaceX, Rocket Lab or other players in launch industry. Nevertheless, emergence of simpler and cheaper satellite designs allowed smaller teams with smaller budgets to participate in space exploration. Notably, the first cubesats were launched a year before the flight of SpaceShipOne in October 2004, the first major event of New Space epoch.
Original cubesat specifications were published in year 2000 by Space System Development Lab of Stanford University. But the first real cubesats were launched on June 30, 2003 on a Rokot launch vehicle (a converted ICBM) as a secondary payloads, while MOST, a Canadian space telescope was one of the primary ones. They all were deployed into relatively high-altitude circular orbits with altitude over 800 kilometers and therefore still in orbit as of 2020. The missions and fates of all those satellites were very different and illustrative of both capabilities and limitations of the early cubesats. Let’s have a look at each of those missions in more details, starting with less fortunate ones:
CANX-1 was a 1U cubesat designed by University of Toronto, Canada. It was rather sophisticated for an early one, having an imaging camera, GPS receiver and proper attitude control and communication subsystems. Sadly, it never came alive after deployment and no signal was ever received from it. However it was not the last cubesat from University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies and their later cubesat missions, starting with CANX-2, enjoyed more success.
The next in the list of less-than-fortunate ones was DTUSAT cubesat, another 1U one from Technical University of Denmark. Its primary mission was a deployment of electrodynamic tether and the secondary mission was Earth observation, meaning it had an imaging camera. It could be a pretty interesting mission, but again the satellite was dead after deployment, with no signal ever received from them.
The fate of AAUSAT-1, another Danish 1U cubesat from University of Aalborg was somewhat more fortunate. Its payload included an imaging camera as well. It became alive after launch and some radio signals were received from it. However, there were some problems with communications subsystem and those signals were very weak. Not much useful data were extracted on the ground. It was able to operate for two and a half months before its battery degraded. Still, it was a major step forward for cubesats in general.
QuakeSat from already mentioned Stanford Space System Development Lab was a mission to detect Extremely Low Frequency electromagnetic waves for potential earthquake prediction. It was a considerably larger cubesat, in 3U form-factor, that is 30x10x10 centimeters. Its mission was a lot more successful than of previously mentioned ones. The satellite operated for a year and half, producing valuable scientific results (short-duration ELF emissions were indeed detected, but reliable monitoring of these events requires funding beyond the scope of a single satellite mission). Here is another interesting fact about it: the RF transmitting power of this satellite was approximately 1 Watt, same as the transmitting power of the first satellite launched ever, Sputnik-1, back in 1957.
Next came two missions from Japanese universities. The first one to describe was named CUTE-1. It was designed by Tokyo Institute of Technology and its mission was testing transmission protocols for the space-to-ground communications. As with Quakesat before, this mission was also quite successful. It was fully operational at least until 2012, a very long time, considering the average cubesat lifetime is around two years. What is even more impressive is that CUTE-1 is still transmitting telemetry data, after almost 17 years of operations!
But another mission from Japanese team, 1U cubesat XI-IV has demonstrated even more impressive results. It was designed and built by University of Tokyo and had the primary mission of Earth Observation, meaning it had an imaging camera on board. And it was fully operational as late as June 2019, still able to produce the image with its CMOS camera and transmit it to the ground. Not bad for being also one of the first cubesats to reach orbit! Maybe we should learn a thing or two about satellite design from Japan.
And here is the image gallery from XI-IV. You can see gradual deterioration of camera instrument, but the images are still legible enough to see Earth’ cloud cover.
On-orbit Operation Results of the World’s First CubeSat XI-IV – Lessons Learned from Its Successful 15-years Space Flight. Ryu Funase, Satoshi Ikari, Ryo Suzumoto, et al. University of Tokyo, 2019. SSC19-WKIII-09.
We begin a new series of blog posts by our team members, explaining some of the concepts behind our business model and technology.
Cubesats are a classification of small satellites that are measured in a volumetric called a U, This U is a cube of dimensions 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (hence the term cubesat) and a satellite can be built of a set number of U’s. Such as a 1U communications node, a 3U earth observation platform or a larger 12U space telescope.
To understand how the cubesat concept evolved we need to understand the traditional design philosophy of satellites that has only changed in the last decade. Back when the first satellite was launched in 1957 we were still in an era of analogue electronics where you would require a single vacuum tube the size of your fist to have a single transistor in your circuit, compared to the latest processors today that have billions of them over a surface area equal to your fingernail. This means that for early satellites to have any form of capability they would need to be large in size for even basic radio communications.
Over the past decade consumer electronics have become small, cheap and most importantly: reliable. This means you can get high capability in a small package, which is important when you consider that per kilogram it would cost you up to 35,000 US dollars to get anything into orbit. This led to the development of the small satellite classification where a system that can fit in your hand can be sent into orbit and can be a communications platform, a device that can track forest fires or even a development platform where new technology can be tested in space at a reduced cost. Such as our mission NOVA.
The big advantages that cubesats (and by definition small satellites) bring to the table is cost to market, for previous missions you would have to use space grade equipment which is traditionally high cost and size and following that chain would lead to a larger satellite that would require a dedicated launch, again leading to higher costs. In a smaller size using off the shelf components costs can be saved, and multiple cubesats can be carried in a single launcher under a rideshare programme which further reduces costs.
Due to the lower capability of cubesats compared to the larger projects led by the international space agencies they are used heavily in commercial applications, this means that they operate in low earth orbit (LEO) where the majority of earth observation and communication satellites are based, although LEO is classed as any attitude below 2000km this tends to be more in the 300km ballpark. Small satellites are seldom used in higher orbits such as geostationary orbit (GSO) due to the cost of a dedicated heavy launcher that can send larger payloads to such altitude in addition to these higher orbits being more restricted due to their unique properties.
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