Now that the space shuttle is history, and the federal government is looking around for more ways to save money, some space watchers are starting to take a closer look at handheld “CubeSats” as an alternative to large, expensive satellites whose technology is often outdated a few months after launch.
“The military is moving toward using CubeSats more often,” says William Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst at market analyst firm Forecast International. It’s not only the cost or the ability to upgrade quickly, he says, but also the fact that they’re tough targets for foreign powers to shoot out of the sky.
“It’s hard to hit a target that is roughly the size of a coffee cup screaming across the sky,” says Brian Zufelt of the University of New Mexico, who works with the Air Force Research Laboratory and NASA on CubeSat programs. The tiny sats cost anywhere from five figures to several hundred thousand dollars, Zufelt says, adding that his lab is preparing to launch three 4 x 4 x 4-in. CubeSats on a rocket this fall, and that the whole thing will have been built and launched for about $35,000.
Zufelt says that one of the ideas kicking around his team is to use a CubeSat to develop a way to shoot a 1-watt laser from low Earth orbit to a soldier on the ground, who would be able to receive the transmission using “a simple telescope and a photon detector attached to the lens.” While the laser would disperse at that range, “the photons would make it to the telescope and it would be able to pass communications that way. So that way you would have an unjammable communications link that is really pretty much undetected.” Zufelt also says that commercial-off-the-shelf equipment has been working very well in the CubeSats, so much so that “you can just put what you find in your typical Android phone and shoot it in to low Earth orbit.” Currently the biggest limitation to the technology are power-generation capabilities that can keep the applications on the vehicle functioning, he says, since the sat is too small to really equip it for long missions with the power technologies currently in use. “That’s going to be the limitation for a long time,” he warns. “Anything the military would want, the technology is there that can fit into that structure, but the issue is power.”