It seems the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), of all agencies, has come to recognize that good things come in small packages. Famous for building billion-dollar behemoths, the NRO has begun investing in spacecraft of a completely different sort: so-called cubesats measuring 10 centimeters on a side and weighing as little as a kilogram each. These tiny satellites will serve as low-cost test beds for new technologies that can then be used aboard operational spacecraft at minimal risk.
New technologies often are the pacing element of complex government satellite programs; when the inevitable development setbacks occur the entire program can be held up at a huge cost. Developing these technologies independently, designing them into satellites only after they’ve been proven, can dramatically reduce program risk.
Collateral benefits of the initiative range from stimulating the space industrial base — the NRO is developing 12 cubesats and plans to order up to 50 more — to providing flight opportunities for other agencies like NASA and for university-based researchers and students. Then there’s the price tag: $150,000-$250,000 per cubesat, or $1.5 million-$2.5 million for 10. The more there is to know about the program, the more there is to like.