CubeSats: Challenges and Opportunities

At the present day, the easiest way to get into space with a small budget and a team of amateur space explorers is to launch a “CubeSat” –a very small satellite, as a cube of 10x10x10 cm dimensions, with larger satellites also possible in the increments of this volume unit. Hundreds of those has been launched since the early 2000s, by universities, smaller aerospace companies or even dedicated individuals. They can carry a variety of instruments and have already proven to be an extremely successful and cost-effective way of doing space exploration activities. You can see their explosive growth curve for yourself:

Image source: Erik Kulu, Nanosatellite & CubeSat Database, https://www.nanosats.eu

However, even the smallest such satellite takes a significant investment of time (on order of years) and money (tens of thousands USD) as well as having to pass regulatory requirements from government agencies and launch providers. These challenges present a significant entry barrier for anyone wishing to launch their own satellite. In addition, even successful launch of a CubeSat is not a guarantee that it will become alive after deployment. The failure rates of those satellites are quite high, and it often takes several attempts to get a reliably operating one in orbit, paying full cost in both time and money each time.

As an example, a 1U cubesat, OSSI-1, was built by a single person, Hojun Song and launched in April 2013. He spent 7 years building it and paid at least $100,000 for the launch alone. Sadly, the satellite never became operational and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere just three months later.

Should not be there a better way?

Some Context for Our Project

Space exploration is experiencing a renaissance – with the ascendancy of SpaceX and many of the less prominent but no less motivated independent space companies, ongoing nanosatellite boom, rising ambitions of Chinese Space Agency and the fact that more rockets launched in 2018 than ever before since 1991 the new Space Age is clearly upon us.  

We all have rejoiced watching the successes of the participants – be it the first launch of Falcon Heavy, test flights of new manned spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing, new Chinese and Indian interplanetary missions as well as many successful NASA and ESA missions.  The privileged few of us have been not just watching, but actively participating in the space exploration research and engineering activities – students, scientists, aerospace industry professionals or civil servants in national space agencies.   

However, the vast majority of people excited about new space adventures have only limited options in doing something space-related. Amateur radio enthusiasts can listen for satellite telemetry and people with data science and programming skills can work with data from satellite instruments. But it takes many years of dedicated training and experience to become an astronaut or aerospace engineer even for most talented people. Similarly, entrepreneurship in space industry requires exceptional level of determination and access to significant capital funds – neither Elon Musk, nor Jeff Bezos didn’t start their companies using just “lunch money”. People in disadvantaged communities and living in countries that lack national space agency or strong aerospace industry are very limited in their ability to contribute to the global space exploration efforts. 

So there is clearly a problem to solve – remove or reduce the entry barriers of modern space industry for people wanting to become part of it, but currently lacking opportunities to do so.

The Story Begins…

The story of our project began about a year ago, in March 2018 or so, when a group of fellow students doing Astronautics and Space Engineering course at Cranfield University decided to try to identify a good idea for a space startup company. After a few attempts, the idea of a satellite that would allow third-party users to upload and run their software code emerged.

We think it is a excellent idea to try, as this approach can allow anyone in the world to become a space explorer in the truest sense of this word.