“They contracted with us $117 million for 18 satellites, so that's a unit cost of about $6.5 million a satellite,” says Roth. “And if you look at what a typical NASA or [Defense Department] mission costs, you can't come anywhere close to that.”
Compared to cubesats, however, even that is a high pricetag. With a standardized “1U form factor” measuring 10 cm (4 in.) on a side and weighing no more than 1.33 kg (3 lb.), cubesats typically cost well below $100,000 to build and launch. Coelho has seen changes in the technology first-hand, beginning in 2000 as a Cal Poly undergraduate working with cubesat pioneer Jordi Puig-Suari, and later joining the staff. Among the school's accomplishments is development of the standard cubesat deployment system—the Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD)—and helping to advance the state of the art in cubesats to the point that they are being used to tackle serious science missions (see p. 41).
“It was a training tool for students to build a satellite within their academic career, from design to manufacturing and then to launch and then to on-orbit operations,” says Coelho of the early days. “And it was a good way for small commercial companies to do technology demonstrations for certain components.”
Now, with growing acceptance from users and from the launch-service providers who must weigh the value of carrying secondary payloads against the risk they pose to their primary missions, the ideas for using small satellites, and particularly cubesats, are piling up. One early area of U.S. Air Force interest is multi-source weather data.
“Because the cubesats are small, you can launch them in bunches and disperse them out [with] variable drag capability,” says David Hinkley, a senior project leader at The Aerospace Corp. “Now you've suddenly got 10 useful satellites flying around in different positions that can take temporal data, data that changes with time. In the past they would fly one big satellite, and they would not able to be in multiple places at once.”
Aerospace is experimenting with using the variable drag in low Earth orbit that cubesats get from deploying and retracting different combinations of cruciform solar arrays. NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) plans to launch a constellation of eight 1.5U cubesats next summer in a project called the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks. Its goal is to begin developing inter-satellite communications that could be applied to a number of different applications, including monitoring weather, ice cover in the polar regions and other Earth-surface conditions.
With its mission to push technology hard, Darpa is also working on a mission dubbed Phoenix that is aimed at recycling usable hardware from non-functioning satellites in geostationary (GEO) orbits by reactivating them with tiny modular “satlets” designed to perform various spacecraft functions. On July 12, the agency awarded Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler a contract worth as much as $2.1 million to begin developing systems that can revive a usable antenna on an out-of-service GEO satellite.
At the other end of the satellite service life, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is building on its work with NanoSail-D—a 100-sq.-meter (1,075-sq.-ft.) solar sail demonstration that deployed on Jan. 21, 2011, from a 3U cubesat—to develop deployable drag sails to pull obsolete smallsats out of orbit instead of adding to the space-debris problem.
Overall, Darpa plans to spend $36 million on the Phoenix project, which is peanuts by U.S. military standards. But it is big money in the smallsat world, where mass production and standard forms continue to cut hardware costs dramatically. A San Francisco-based company—Pumpkin Inc.—is selling cubesat kits starting at $7,500 that can be customized depending on the capabilities needed. To date, more than a dozen have been launched, according to Andrew Kalman, the company's president and chief technology officer, who says Pumpkin is following the Apple Inc. model.
“We want to make sure that cubesats really are one of the foremost places where you can leverage the continuing advance of technology,” says Kalman. “To do that you need to recognize that you are not in the driver's seat when it comes to the technology you want to put up there. Rather, you need to be leveraging other markets which are in the driver's seat, which in this case is essentially the consumer electronics field, and take advantage of those technologies.”