A CubeSat (U-class spacecraft) is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research that is made up of multiples of 10×10×11.35 cm cubic units.
California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacture, and testing of small satellites intended for low Earth orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research functions and explore new space technologies.
CubeSats have a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms per unit, and often use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure. CubeSats are most commonly put in orbit by deployers on the International Space Station, or launched as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle.
NASA Goddard is playing an important role in a purely academic tool for students to practice and learn rudimentary satellite design, into a robust platform upon which important science can be conducted (and commercial applications can be built).
CubeSats provide opportunities for low-cost testing and validation of components and systems within the harsh environments of space. Engineers can design a CubeSat mission for demonstrating proof-ofconcept for all kinds of systems and instruments, and then observe how the technology performs. In this way, a CubeSat can serve as a “laboratory in space,” helping to validate a technology. A number of CubeSat projects have been designed for this purpose, testing technology both for NASA and the private sector. By providing quick access to the space environment, NASA Goddard can help the CubeSat platform become more reliable.
NASA Goddard is playing a critical and growing role in helping extend CubeSats capabilities. The ultimate goal is to develop CubeSat technologies that deliver high accuracy, lower power, multinode, and distributed operation suitable for deep space. In this way, NASA Goddard innovation has become an important driver behind the ongoing evolution of CubeSats from a teaching tool to a robust platform for contributing to the advancement of Earth and space science.
The need for such a platform, which measures about 12 inches long, nearly 8 inches wide and 4 inches high, is acute, Johnson said. “We need a potentially disruptive technology that gives us a way to dramatically change the way we do science,” he said. Because NASA science budgets are flat and not likely to increase in the near term, “we need more cost-effective approaches to achieve compelling Earth and space science. A 6U capability provides one way to accomplish the goal,” Johnson explained.