Op-ed | NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge: The Future in a Shoebox

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Cubesats, the complete satellite platform that fits in a shoebox, offer unique advantages and interesting opportunities. This satellite platform is measured in millimeters and grams, dollars and cents.

I exaggerate but only slightly; procurement and operating costs for cubesats are cheap enough, in fact, to fall within the budgetary scope of many smaller companies, laboratories and university departments across the United States. A plethora of companies now will happily sell you all of the kit you need to outfit a fully functional nanosatellite at prices that put traditional satellite component manufacturers to shame.

The question until now has been what to do with this growing platform.

Some companies are building a business case around Earth-imaging constellations, and many a university lab is working on a scientific payload. However, these efforts are all confined to short lives hanging out in low Earth orbit (LEO), where they are duly delivered as secondary payloads ride-sharing with much bigger satellites. There has yet to be a viable propulsion system flown for the cubesat platform capable of boosting a cubesat out of whichever orbit it is placed in nor communications hardware that could span the vast distances of interplanetary space.

NASA, seeing the potential for growth inherent in the cubesat platform, has decided to incentivize the research-and-development process that will bring about just the kinds of systems that will take cubesats beyond LEO. This effort is called the Cube Quest Challenge, and through it NASA hopes to unleash the industrial and entrepreneurial talents of cubesat tinkerers across the country on just these problems.

The challenge is twofold. After a series of ground tournament qualification rounds, selectees will be given a ride on the maiden voyage of NASA’s Space Launch System to cislunar space. Some of these cubesats will then partake in the “Deep Space Derby” while others will attempt the “Lunar Derby.” Each challenge is meant to push a specific technological boundary for the platform.

Deep Space Derby participants are tasked with sending back as much data from their cubesats as they can from at least a 4 million kilometer distance from Earth as they hurtle toward a heliocentric orbit. Lunar Derby teams will instead attempt to propel their cubesats into lunar orbit from a fly-by trajectory.

Both challenges are extreme in nature — imagine, for example, trying to stuff hundreds or thousands of meters per second of delta-v into a satellite the size of a shoebox, and then finding room for all the other systems.

There is a method to this madness, of course, and the challenge can be won. But it won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap to develop, test and validate completely new types of hardware for the ground-breakers involved. Breaking down the barriers of entry to the market of deep-space cubesat capabilities is a tough order, and NASA hopes to put cracks in that wall with up to $5 million in cash prizes set aside for this contest. Like the Orteig Prize  — the 1919 contest that spurred aviation across the Atlantic Ocean — the Cube Quest Challenge has the goal of proving the possibility of this seemingly impossible task and in doing so unleashing a wave of commercial activity in this arena.

Cubesats have proved versatile in LEO; the Cube Quest Challenge will prove the platform viable in deep space. This is a promising development — university labs will no longer have to hope only to provide a single piece of hardware for new science missions; they could build their own entire mission for the same cost. I cannot even speculate on the commercial potential of these developments given how profound they are for our industry.

Paired with dedicated launch vehicles for the cubesat platform (which both NASA and private industry are working on with fervor via the NASA Launch Services Enabling Exploration and Technology, or NEXT, contract and other efforts), one cannot help but conclude the inevitable — cislunar and even interplanetary space will soon enjoy a plethora of shoebox-sized satellites performing real science and returning profit to investors.

I implore my colleagues in the aerospace industry to take notice; while the “big boys” break ground in futuristic retro-propulsive landings and shiny new launch vehicles, the small players are making their own big moves.

The first Ground Tournament of the Cube Quest Challenge is set to take place Aug. 3 with further Ground Tournaments every six months until February 2017, at which time winners will be selected for a ride-share on the historic first launch of the SLS the following year.

Rarely in our industry’s past has there been such an occasion where radically new avenues and approaches to commercial and scientific endeavors have opened up. We are now arriving at just such a juncture, and I would like to be the first to tell you that the future can fit in a shoebox.


David Miguel Hobbs is a senior in aerospace engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he is program manager for the M-SAT satellite research lab as part of the university’s Cube Quest effort.