CubeSats Are Small Yet Mighty Important In Space Exploration CubeSats are only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. Once dismissed as tools for students learning the principles of aerospace engineering, they're now being used for more sophisticated missions.
NPR logo

Itty-Bitty Satellites Take On Big-Time Science Missions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/772024008/772557814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Itty-Bitty Satellites Take On Big-Time Science Missions

Itty-Bitty Satellites Take On Big-Time Science Missions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/772024008/772557814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

Tiny satellites called CubeSats are starting to play a big part in exploring space. CubeSats are really small. They're just about twice as big as a Rubik's Cube, but electronics are getting ever more mini, and it's possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny satellite. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Aerospace giants use spiffy advertising to attract top engineering talent. With CubeSats, it was different - at least at the start.

HANNAH GOLDBERG: I saw a flyer on a bus stop that said, want to build a satellite?

PALCA: Hannah Goldberg saw that flyer when she was an undergraduate engineering major in 1999. Now she works at GomSpace, a Danish satellite company making CubeSats for the European Space Agency.

GOLDBERG: In the beginning, the early days of CubeSats, they kind of had a bad reputation. People didn't think you could do much science or much engineering benefit with them.

PALCA: CubeSats are basically a box with fixed dimensions. You can put anything you like inside. And since they were initially intended for students learning the principles of aerospace engineering, no big deal if they broke after a few months in space. But Goldberg says with the advent of smartphones, engineers started getting really good at packing a bunch of electronics into a small space. CubeSats started getting more sophisticated, and scientists started to take notice. Barbara Cohen is a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. She says, at first, scientists were cautious about a CubeSat mission.

BARBARA COHEN: We want to get science out of it. We don't want it to be throwing something into space for the sake of in three months becoming space debris.

PALCA: Now she thinks CubeSats are ready for prime time.

COHEN: It's a miniature spacecraft. That's actually the way we think about it.

PALCA: Cohen is working on a mission called Lunar Flashlight. It's actually made up of six CubeSats joined together, about as big as a family-sized cereal box.

COHEN: Lunar Flashlight is designed to look for exposed water frost in the permanently shadowed regions of the moon.

PALCA: The spacecraft will shine a laser into those regions' deep craters at the moon's south pole. One of the reasons CubeSats can be so small and light is they can hitch a ride on other missions' rockets. But Cohen says for the moon or some other spot outside Earth orbit, you still need to be able to change course.

COHEN: And about one-third of our satellite is dedicated to our propulsion system.

PALCA: Lunar Flashlight uses fairly standard thrusters to change course, but Tiffany Russell Lockett says there are a lot of ways to propel yourself through space.

TIFFANY RUSSELL LOCKETT: We are using a solar sail as our primary propulsion system.

PALCA: Lockett is an engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

LOCKETT: A solar sail is a large, thin film, reflective surface. Think of, like, a sailboat or a large kite. But instead of using wind to propel itself, it uses sunlight.

PALCA: The sail is folded up for launch and unfurls once in space. Lockett's CubeSat is headed for an asteroid. Once it gets there...

LOCKETT: We take pictures.

PALCA: One reason scientists like CubeSat missions is they're relatively cheap, so you can have them all to yourself. Evgenya Shkolnik is an astronomer at Arizona State University. For now, she's using the Hubble Space Telescope to study stars that might have planets around them.

EVGENYA SHKOLNIK: Hubble is shared by hundreds of people every year. And even though our team has a large - what's considered a large program on Hubble, it's still only about a week of time.

PALCA: That's why Shkolnik is working on a CubeSat.

SHKOLNIK: This way, if you build what you need for one very clear experiment, then you can have the full year to do one experiment really well.

PALCA: Shkolnik thinks more scientists will be turning to miniature satellites in the future. Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CERULEAN SKIES' "THEY DO EXIST")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.