We live in an era where everything seems to be becoming very large, or very small. Growing excitement over the latter has fueled research into both how to make satellites smaller and how to make small satellite missions larger. But, satellites are only useful if they are in space, and getting them there has opened up a whole new niche that Firefly Aerospace intends to service.
Part of the advances have come with the miniaturization of technology. Computers that used to fill a room, now fit in your hand, Cameras and sensors that used to fit in your backpack, now come as accessories in your smartphone. The same is now happening to satellites.
Smaller, lighter and cheaper satellites are now able to do with just a few kilograms, what satellites in previous generations did with several tonnes of steel. Small microsatellites now weigh between 10‑100 kilograms, the same size as small child to a grown man. Smaller satellites, known as, picosatellites, weigh less than a kilogram each.
In the past, satellites have largely been custom built for each application. CubeSats are changing this paradigm by standardizing the design and therefore the launch parameters. Each one is exactly 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm and has a predefined maximum weight. This is allowing scientists and enthusiasts to focus on mission objectives, rather than designing each satellite from the ground up. It is also allowing launch providers to design standardized rockets specifically to launch CubeSats.
One of NASA’s stated goals over the next 10 years is the implementation of the DRIVE initiative to:
- • Diversify observing platforms in solar and space physics;
- • Realize the scientific potential of already existing assets;
- • Integrate observing platforms into successful investigations;
- • Venture forward with technology development;
- • Educate the next generation.
CubeSats are playing a significant role in helping complete three of these goals. They are helping diversify by providing smaller platforms from which to make unique measurements and increase the science-return of larger facilities. They are venturing forward by providing a low cost, low risk platform to test prove new technologies, while making important contributions of their own. And they are educating the next generation by significantly lowering costs while providing a way to shorten the start-to-end mission time frame to a matter of years. This allows university students the opportunity to carry out a complete mission entirely within an post-secondary program.
“Diversify” Observing Platforms
There are dozens of missions that have become possible with the advent of CubeSats. Some NASA missions that plan to use the technology are:
The Mars Micro Orbiter (MMO) mission – this mission will use a 6U-class CubeSat to measure the Martian atmosphere in visible and infrared wavelengths from Mars orbit. A 6U-Class CubeSat is simply six 10cm x 10cm x 10cm CubeSats that are stacked on top of each other. This allows the satellite to be larger than a single unit CubeSat, while staying standardized for design and launch purposes.
The Hydrogen Albedo Lunar Orbiter (HALO) – this will be another 6U-class CubeSat that will investigate the lunar hydrogen cycle and the origin of water on the lunar surface. This mission is particularly exciting because it will incorporate its own propulsion system into the compact design.
The Magnetospheric Constellation (MagCon) mission – This mission is still in concept stage, but it intends to use tens or hundreds of spacecraft to measure particles and fields around Earth. It would provide the first global view of the Earth’s magnetosphere and how it interacts with the Sun. It has been in concept phase for years since it is completely infeasible with today’s technology, but many hope that it will become a reality by using CubeSats.
CubeSats are also being used as a platform to demonstrate new technologies. Traditional satellites are notoriously expensive and there are always going to be risks when dealing with space. Very few people are willing to risk their business or reputation on a $5 billion dollar gamble. But, if that risk can be reduced to a few million dollars, or even tens of thousands, far more people will be involved in trying new things.
“There’s an opportunity to embrace some risk,” said Janice Buckner, program executive of NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program. “These mini experiments complement NASA’s larger assets.”
“Educate” the Next Generation
“CubeSats are part of a growing technology that’s transforming space exploration,” said David Pierce, senior program executive for suborbital research at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “CubeSats are small platforms that enable the next generation of scientists and engineers to complete all phases of a complete space mission during their school career.”
These devices are not limited to post-graduate students. In 2012 students from St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia were inspired by the final flyover of the Space Shuttle Discovery and began a three-year hands-on, inquiry based learning activity to build the St. Thomas More (STM) Sat-1, the first CubeSat built by elementary school students. It was launched in December of 2015, showing that anyone can now reach for the stars!
St. Thomas More (STM) Sat-1, was made possible through direct support from NASA. Like most micro satellites, it was added on as a secondary payload to a larger launch. This can be difficult to do, as there are lineups of projects and teams that will never make it off the ground. Current industry leaders such as SpaceX, Blue Origins and Russia’s S7 Space Transport System can carry tens or even hundreds of thousands of kilograms into space.
The odds of getting your 1kg CubeSat on board are astronomical – leaving most satellites grounded.
Firefly, a young space company founded by Max Polyakov, provides low-cost, high-performance space launch capability for clients that don’t need the large capacity of these massive orbital lifters. Their small rockets that are designed for small payloads can be deployed from anywhere. They are light and easy to move, so they can be launched from wherever they are needed.
Conventional rockets can be thought of as trains that are able to move large amounts of goods from one city to another. Most players in the game are trying to build larger and larger trains.
Firefly, on the other hand, is making cars that individual research centers, small organizations and even schools can have access to – a rocket for the people.
It is certain that there is a niche for these technologies to flourish. As Janice Bucker from NASA concluded, these technologies “will enable the next generation of planetary scientists and engineers to use revolutionary new mission concepts that have the potential to return extraordinary science.”