Posted May 22, 2015

Cubesats, the third power

Lightsail, the Planetary Society's prototype solar sail, was launched this week and is doing fine. The probe that the sail is attached to is built out of cubesats - a technology that enables even small companies to engage in spaceflight.

To stay up-to-date about Lightsail matters, please follow the Planetary Society's blog. Deployment of the solar sail is to be expected in four weeks.

Meanwhile let's look at how a modest private organization like Planetary Society managed to design, launch and operate a space probe. An important enabler is the phenomenon of cubesats. The probe that the Planetary Society's sail is attached to, consists of three cubesat units.

A cubesat is kind of a standardized 'unit of satellite,' measuring 10x10x10 cm. It is small and light and can be made using off-the-shelf materials and components so it can be relatively cheap. There is even an official standard (although of course small satellites can be designed differently) that leaves room for many different applications. This summer NASA will test cubesats for use in monitoring other planets.

Cubesats are very much part of the third wave in spaceflight that is currently taking place. One: space used to be the territory of governments because it was an untested, dangerous endeavour and ridiculously expensive. Large companies entered the field when reliability walked onto the scene. For small companies costs were still prohibitive.

But there is some sort of Moore's law for satellites, as Eric Anderson of Planetary Resouces (not to be confused with the Planerary Society) has shown so well.

Prices came down, opportunities rose, and now the third phase of spaceflight has begun, in which small companies routinely fly satellites.

One such company is ISIS (not to be confused... but we're sure you won't) from Delft, The Netherlands. ISIS stands for Innovative Solutions In Space. 'We design, build, test, launch and operate satellites for our customers,' says CEO Jeroen Rotteveel, one of the founders. 'In addition, we're kind of a travel agency for satellites.' The company was founded in 2006 and has been growing at a yearly rate of about 40% ever since. 'The limiting factor is not demand, or our ability to find customers, but rather the availability of skilled and experienced engineers and technicians who can do the work,' says Rotteveel.

'Small satellites are an important factor now. Measured in money , Big Space is still dominant, but as of 2013 more satellites below 10 kgs were launched than heavier ones.' As a matter of fact, The rocket that put up the Lightsail mission this week launched no less than 10 cubesats simultaneously.

What do these small satellites actually do? Measurements of the upper layers of the atmosphere, the Earth-Sun relationship, heat regulation, demonstration of new sensors, are examples that Rotteveel comes up with. 'Also there are more and more applications using networks of small satellites instead of one or two big ones. Technically you could follow all airplanes and ships in the world. One tiny cubesat can monitor all craft once a day. To monitor once every ten minutes you need an couple hundred.'

Cubesats or other smallsats can't do everything. 'You simply can't fit in a 20 cm lens,' explains Rotteveel. 'Also, off-the-shelf components may not live as long as components that were designed for use in space. But on the other hand, you can have three satellites lasting three years each instead of one lasting ten - for a lower total cost. That makes you a lot more flexible.'

'What we are good at is 'design to cost.' Space used to be about doing the best job possible whatever it took. Now it's about doing a good job at minimal cost.'

And what about the name? Has it become a burden? 'Not at all,' says Rotteveel. ‘It is quite hard to confuse a space company with its more notorious namesake. We take it rather lighthearted in the end. I sometimes joke that I wanted good brand awareness by 2014 - and we got it. And in the end, if we were to change our company name because of the other ISIS, that’s giving in to terrorism.'


About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.