Editorial | Next Step in the Cubesat Revolution

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Government agencies and research institutions tasked to do more with less are finding their range of options broadened these days by cubesats, the standardized nanosatellite platforms measuring just 10 centimeters on a side that thanks to the inexorable march of technology and innovation are becoming increasingly capable of performing meaningful science.

Once confined to missions that represented little more than a proverbial footprint in orbit, cubesats are now performing or being developed for experiments that include plasma physics, astronomy, atmospheric science, hyperspectral imaging and communications. This is in addition to their obvious application as test beds for new technologies and operational concepts like formation flying. With the addition of propulsion systems — various types are in development — cubesats can truly make the transition to high-value platforms, despite their low cost.

Arguably the biggest challenge to even more widespread use of cubesats is the same one that’s been nagging researchers of modest means for at least two decades: the lack of reasonably priced opportunities to get their craft in orbit. It’s the type of fundamental problem that can stop a revolution in its tracks.

But that appears to be changing, thanks in large part to a willingness of government agencies, in particular NASA and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to embrace cubesats. The NRO launched 11 cubesats designed to perform a variety of missions as secondary payloads last September, and has another batch scheduled to fly this December.

NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, meanwhile, has launched 13 cubesats on two missions to date — one in cooperation with the NRO — with 20 more cubesats slated to fly this year on three separate launches. According to Garrett Skrobot, who manages the program for NASA, a total of 36 cubesat satellites are manifested during the next two years, and another 34 are awaiting launcher assignments.

With demand outstripping supply, NASA is now looking to take things to a new level in the form of a program to nurture development of low-cost rockets that would carry out dedicated cubesat launches. The NASA Launch Services Enabling Exploration and Technology, or NEXT, initiative is envisioned as a one-shot deal: NASA would fund a single mission to launch as many as five triple-unit cubesats to low Earth orbit at a cost of $200,000 to $300,000 per satellite. The idea is that if industry produces one or more rockets that fit the bill, NASA could create a contracting vehicle for dedicated cubesat launches, just like it has today for launches of larger satellites.

Anybody familiar with efforts by NASA — and the Defense Department, for that matter — to develop low-cost nanosatellite launchers recognizes that NEXT is a long shot. The past two decades have seen multiple such efforts, none of which succeeded in bringing a vehicle to the launch pad. Just last year, for example, NASA canceled an initiative under which it was offering a $3 million reward for the first company able to carry out two dedicated single-unit cubesat launches in two weeks.

If NEXT is to be successful, it likely will have to piggyback on some other small-launcher development effort already underway, such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access or the U.S. Army’s Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space projects, assuming at least one is successful.   

Here’s hoping that’s the case. NASA and the NRO have done an admirable job of creating opportunities for cubesats to fly as secondary payloads. The commercial sector is doing its part as well: 

Companies like Spaceflight Services offer brokering services for satellite owners seeking rides on commercial launches, while NanoRacks is arranging for cubesats to fly aboard the international space station or be deployed from the orbital outpost. 

But as Mr. Skrobot points out, dedicated launch vehicles would enable not only more standardization of cubesats but also, by placing them in optimized orbits, allow them to realize their full scientific potential. If and when this happens, there can be no denying that the revolution has arrived.