NASA CubeSats Heading into Orbit (Artist's Concept) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — As interest in the use of cubesats continues to grow, U.S. government agencies are taking very different approaches regarding their use, with some openly embracing them as useful scientific tools and others more skeptical about their effectiveness.

A June 22 meeting of an ad hoc committee of the National Research Council (NRC) on the scientific utility of cubesats also revealed different approaches in how agencies manage cubesat development efforts, with some taking a far more decentralized approach than others.

One of the biggest advocates for cubesats has not been NASA but the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has funded a small program for space science cubesat missions since 2008. “Cubesats can help us provide some of these measurements that we badly need,” said Therese Moretto Jorgensen, who manages NSF’s cubesat program. “Cubesats can’t do everything, but they can help.”

NSF has spent $15.6 million on its cubesat program since its inception, funding seven missions to collect space weather and related data. Six of those missions, Jorgensen said, collected useful scientific data. “We have definitely confirmed for everybody that there is scientific value to cubesats,” she said.

While NSF has taken a focused, centralized approach to cubesats, NASA’s interest in such spacecraft has been more diverse and diffuse. The agency’s work in cubesats is spread across its Science, Space Technology, and Human Exploration and Operations mission directorates, and includes not just science missions using cubesats but also technology development and launch services.

“We don’t have a center of excellence that just does cubesats,” said David Pierce, senior program executive for suborbital programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He noted, as an example of that approach, that eight different NASA centers will be exhibiting at the next Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University in August.

Pierce said NASA views cubesats as similar to sounding rocket programs in terms of both low cost and a higher acceptance of risk. “Even if it doesn’t work, the researchers learn something,” he said. “We might be able to get valuable technology and science out of it.”

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), though, is more skeptical about the value of cubesats to provide imagery and other data. Jennifer Lacey, observing systems branch chief at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, said the types of data most in demand, such as shortwave infrared observations, “sort of drives us out of the cubesat area” because those instruments require larger satellite buses.

Lacey, though, would not rule out making use of cubesats in the future as their capabilities improve. The USGS signed a technical assistance agreement in 2013 with Planet Labs, a company developing a constellation of cubesats to provide medium-resolution imagery that could complement that collected by Landsat spacecraft. “It helped us stay up to date on the technology,” she said.

While many NRC committee members expressed interest in the potential of cubesats to perform science missions, one person expressed some skepticism. “As an engineer, it sounds like a lot of fun,” former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young said during a presentation by NASA at the meeting. “But I can’t figure out what is your basic mission, what you are trying to accomplish.”

Young also expressed concern about another widely touted benefit of cubesats, as a way to train young engineers on spacecraft design and development, because such missions have a much higher tolerance of risk than larger, more conventional spacecraft missions. “I don’t want you developing a workforce that only knows how to do high-risk, wing-it kinds of things,” he said. “I want a workforce that knows how to do disciplined space activities.”

Others, though, cautioned about applying more rigor to cubesats, arguing that it would eliminate the advantages they offer. “It doesn’t work if you want to do cubesats in the way of traditional missions,” Jorgensen said. “You don’t achieve much new, except you do the old thing on a smaller scale.”

The NRC committee plans to spend the next year studying what scientific missions cubesats can currently achieve, and what investments can be made by government agencies and others to improve their scientific utility. The study is jointly funded by NASA and NSF, with a final report due in June 2016.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...