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Ncube-2, a Norwegian CubeSat (10 cm cube)

A CubeSat is a type of miniaturized satellite for space research that usually has a volume of exactly one liter (10 cm cube), has a mass of no more than 1.33 kilograms,[1] and typically uses commercial off-the-shelf components for its electronics.

Beginning in 1999, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Stanford University developed the CubeSat specifications to promote and develop the skills necessary for the design, manufacturing, and testing of small satellites intended for low Earth orbit (LEO) that perform a number of scientific research and explore new space technologies. Although the bulk of development and launches comes from academia, several companies build CubeSats such as large-satellite-maker Boeing, and several small companies. CubeSat projects have also been the subject of Kickstarter campaigns.[2] The CubeSat format is also popular with amateur radio satellite builders.


1U CubeSat structure

The CubeSat reference design was proposed in 1999 by professors Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University and Bob Twiggs of Stanford University.[3]:159 The goal was to enable graduate students to be able to design, build, test and operate in space a spacecraft with capabilities similar to that of the first spacecraft, Sputnik. The CubeSat as initially proposed did not set out to become a standard; rather, it became a standard over time by a process of emergence. The first CubeSats were launched in June 2003 on a Russian Eurockot, and approximately 75 CubeSats had been placed into orbit by 2012.[4]

The need for such a small-factor satellite became apparent in 1998 as a result of work done at Stanford University's Space System Development Laboratory. At SSDL students had been working on the OPAL (Orbiting Picosatellite Automatic Launcher) microsatellite since 1995. OPAL's mission to deploy daughter-ship "picosatellites" had resulted in the development of a launcher system that was "hopelessly complicated" and could only be made to work "most of the time". With the project's delays mounting, Twiggs sought out DARPA funding that resulted in the redesign of the launching mechanism into a simple pusher plate concept with the satellites held in place by a spring-loaded door.[3]:151–157

Desiring to shorten the development cycle experienced on OPAL and inspired by the picosatellites OPAL carried, Twiggs set out to find "how much could you reduce the size and still have a practical satellite". The picosatellites on OPAL were 10.1 x 7.6 x 2.5 cm, a size that was not conducive to covering all sides of the spacecraft with solar cells – a requirement for a tumbling satellite. Inspired by a 4-inch cubic plastic box used to display Beanie Babies in stores, Twiggs first settled on the larger 10-centimeter cube as a guideline for the new (yet-to-be-named) CubeSat concept. A model of a launcher was developed for the new satellite using the same pusher plate concept that had been used in the modified OPAL launcher. Twiggs presented the idea to Puig-Suari in the summer of 1999 and then at the Japan-U.S. Science, Technology, and Space Applications Program (JUSTSAP) conference in November 1999.[3]:157–159

The term "CubeSat" was coined to denote nanosatellites that adhere to the standards described in the CubeSat design specification. Cal Poly published the standard in an effort led by aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari.[5] Bob Twiggs, of the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Stanford University, and currently a member of the space science faculty at Morehead State University in Kentucky, has contributed to the CubeSat community.[6] His efforts have focused on CubeSats from educational institutions.[7] The specification does not apply to other cube-like nanosatellites such as the NASA "MEPSI" nanosatellite, which is slightly larger than a CubeSat.


The CubeSat specification accomplishes several high-level goals. The main reason for miniaturizing satellites is to reduce the cost of deployment and are often suitable for launch in multiples, using the excess capacity of larger launch vehicles. The CubeSat design specifically minimizes risk to the rest of the launch vehicle and payloads. Encapsulation of the launcher–payload interface takes away the amount of work that would previously be required for mating a piggyback satellite with its launcher. Unification among payloads and launchers enables quick exchanges of payloads and utilization of launch opportunities on short notice.

The standard 10×10×10 cm basic CubeSat is often called a "one unit" or "1U" CubeSat, has a volume of one liter, and weighs no more than 1 kg (2.2 lb). They are scalable along only one axis, by 1U increments. CubeSats such as a "2U" CubeSat (20×10×10 cm) and a "3U" CubeSat (30×10×10 cm) have been built and launched. In recent years larger CubeSat platforms have been proposed, most commonly 6U (10x20x30 cm or 12x24x36 cm[8]) and 12U (20x20x30 cm or 24x24x36 cm[8]), to extend the capabilities of CubeSats beyond academic and technology validation applications and into more complex science and national defense goals.

Scientist holding a CubeSat chassis

Since CubeSats are all 10x10 cm (regardless of length) they can all be launched and deployed using a common deployment system called a Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD), also developed and built by Cal Poly.[9] P-PODs are mounted to a launch vehicle and carry CubeSats into orbit and deploy them once the proper signal is received from the launch vehicle. P-PODs have deployed over 90% of all CubeSats launched to date, and 100% of all CubeSats launched since 2006. The P-POD Mk III has capacity for three 1U CubeSats, or other 1U, 2U, or 3U CubeSats combination up to a maximum volume of 3U.[10]

Different classifications are used to categorize such miniature satellites based on mass.[11] 1U CubeSats belong to the genre of picosatellites.

  1. Minisatellite (100–500 kg)
  2. Microsatellite (10–100 kg)
  3. Nanosatellite (1–10 kg)
  4. Picosatellite (0.1–1 kg)
  5. Femtosatellite (0.01–0.1 kg)

Most CubeSats carry one or two scientific instruments as their primary mission payload.

Propulsion and attitude control[edit]

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout concept: a controllable solar sail CubeSat

For mission safety, only a few CubeSats are equipped with a propulsion system that enables orbit correction or attitude control. Attitude control (or pointing control) always been challenging due primarily for volumetric constrains and lack of small attitude sensing. Hence, most CubeSat control designs rely on general tumbling or, at best, magnetic rate control with large attitude errors.[12] New proposals, for instance, may use solar-electric propulsion (ion thrusters), compressed gas, vaporizable liquids, such as butane or carbon dioxide, or other innovative propulsion systems that are simple, cheap and scalable.[11] One such example is the Illinois Observing Nanosatellite (ION) 2U CubeSat, destroyed at launch,[13] and built by the University of Illinois, that used three magnetic torque coils for a 3-axis control of the satellite.[14][15]

Other innovations employ a solar sail as its main propulsion and stability in deep space; three examples are the 3U NanoSail-D2 launched in 2010, the LightSail-1 scheduled for launch in April 2016,[16][17] and the proposed Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout).[18] The ESTCube-1 used an electric solar-wind sail. The ambitious 'Time Capsule to Mars' is a student-led project at the Duke University that proposes to use an electric propulsion concept under development at MIT called ion electrospray propulsion, a miniature form of electric propulsion and attitude control.[19][20]


Winglet solar panels to increase surface area and power generated

CubeSats use solar cells to convert solar light to electricity that is then stored in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that provide power during eclipse as well as during peak load times.[21] These satellites have a limited surface area on their external walls for solar cells assembly, and has to be effectively shared with other parts, such as antennas, optical sensors, camera lens, and access port. Recent innovations include additional spring-loaded solar arrays that deploy as soon as the satellite is released. These satellites have a limited surface area on their external walls for solar cells assembly, and has to be effectively shared with other parts, such as antennas, optical sensors, camera lens, and access port. Recent innovations include additional spring-loaded solar arrays that deploy as soon as the satellite is released.


The low cost of CubeSats have enabled unprecedented access to space for smaller institutions and organizations, but for most CubeSat forms, the range and available power is limited to about 2W for its communications antennae.[22][11] They can use radio-communication systems in the VHF, UHF, L-, S-, C- and X-band.[11] For UHF/VHF transmissions, a single helical antenna or four monopole antennae are deployed by a spring-loaded mechanism.[22][11]

Also, because of the required tumbling (≈35 RPM), radio-communications are a challenge, so many CubeSats use omnidirectional linear monopole or dipole antennas built with commercial measuring tape. For more demanding needs, some companies offer high gain antennae for CubeSats, but their deployment and pointing systems are significantly more complex.[22][11] For example, MIT and JPL are developing an inflatable dish antenna with a useful range to the Moon.[23]


CubeSat forms a cost-effective independent means of getting a payload into orbit.[5] With their relatively small size, 1U CubeSats could each be made and launched to low Earth orbit (LEO) for an estimated cost (2014) of $65,000 to $80,000. After delays from low-cost launchers such as Interorbital Systems,[24] by 2015 launch prices have been $100,000[25]–$125,000,[26] plus approximately $10,000 to construct the CubeSat.[27] This price tag, far lower than most satellite launches, has made CubeSat a viable option for schools and about 50 universities and some companies around the world, that were developing their own CubeSats by 2004.

Notable past missions[edit]

Main article: List of CubeSats

One of the earliest launches of CubeSats was 30 June 2003 from Plesetsk, Russia, with Eurockot Launch Services's Multiple Orbit Mission. CubeSats were put into a sun-synchronous orbit and included the Danish AAU CubeSat and DTUSat, the Japanese CubeSat XI-IV and CUTE-1, the Canadian Can X-1, and the US triple-CubeSat Quakesat.[28]

On 27 October 2005, a Kosmos-3M launch vehicle launched from Plesetsk carried three CubeSats into orbit on the European Space Agency's Student Space Exploration & Technology Initiative (SSETI) mission. The SSETI Express Satellite student-built satellite was not a CubeSat as it weighed 62 kg and was the size of a washing machine.[29] The CubeSats that did make orbit on this launch were the Ncube satellite project from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the University of Tokyo's CubeSat XI-V.[29]

On 26 July 2006, 14 CubeSats from 11 universities and a private company were launched aboard a Dnepr rocket, the largest planned deployment of CubeSats to date.[7] The rocket failed and was destroyed during launch, obliterating the CubeSats and four other satellites aboard.[30] The launch was lost after the first stage engine shut down prematurely.[31] All satellite parts are believed destroyed. The committee investigating the failed launch concluded that the failure was caused by a malfunctioning hydraulic drive unit on the rocket's first stage.[32] The malfunction brought about control disturbances which led to roll instability and excessive excursions of yaw and pitch angles. Thrust termination occurred at 74 seconds after lift off. The launch had been postponed numerous times because the primary payload, EgyptSat 1, was not ready. Due to ITAR concerns,[citation needed] the CubeSats were moved to a different launch site, with the primary payload being BelKA, which was to be the first satellite from Belarus. The launch carried Rincon 1 and SACRED, both from the University of Arizona and UniSat-4 from the University of Rome (GAUSS team). Other projects came from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Hankuk Aviation University, Seoul, Korea and Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy. The Aerospace Corporation, from the United States, also had its own commercial project on board.

Seven CubeSats were launched 17 April 2007 as secondary payloads on a Dnepr rocket.[33] They included a Colombian project from the students at the Universidad Sergio Arboleda. Their satellite, called Libertad 1, was Colombia's first. The Aerospace Corporation had their AeroCube 2,[34] CP-3 & CP-4 were on board from California Polytechnic State University,[35] and CAPE-1 from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

In a launch coordinated by the Nanosatellite Launch System, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launched CubeSats on April 28, 2008. One was a 3-unit CubeSat (10x10x30 centimeters) named Delfi-C3 from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.[36]

CubeSats launched from the International Space Station on 4 October 2012

On 3 August 2008, a SpaceX Falcon 1 launched from the Kwajalein Atoll launch facility (US) with two NASA CubeSats. They were the PREsat from NASA's Ames Research Center, and the NanoSail-D from both NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and Ames Research Center.[37] These CubeSats were lost due to a launch vehicle failure when the rocket's first stage inadvertently made contact with the second stage after separation. The ground spare for NanoSail, the NanoSail-D2 CubeSat, was successfully launched in November 2010 and deployed from the FASTSAT satellite on a Minotaur IV launch.

On December 8, 2010, several CubeSats were reported to have deployed successfully from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the same one that launched their first Dragon spacecraft on COTS Demo Flight 1.

On March 4, 2011, the Glory mission was lost when the fairing of the Taurus XL failed to separate from the launch vehicle. The rocket also carried three CubeSat satellites. These university satellites include the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory's Explorer-1 PRIME (E1P) developed by students at Montana State University, Kentucky Space's KySat-1 which was developed by multiple Kentucky universities plus several organizations and companies,[38] and the University of Colorado-Boulder's HERMES. This was the first of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite, or ELaNa, missions.

On October 28, 2011, three PPODs containing six CubeSats were placed into orbit along with the NPOESS Preparatory Project satellite aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. This was the second of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) missions launched.[39]

On February 13, 2012, three PPODs containing seven CubeSats were placed into orbit along with the Lares satellite aboard an Avio Vega rocket launched from French Guyana. The CubeSats launched were e-st@r (Politecnico di Torino, Italy), Goliat (University of Bucarest, Romania), Masat-1 (Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Hungary), PW-Sat (Warsaw University of Technology, Poland), Robusta (University of Montpellier 2, France), UniCubeSat-GG (University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy), and XaTcobeo (University of Vigo and INTA, Spain).[40]

An example of one of the ELaNa satellites is the University of New Mexico's Space Plug-and-play Architecture (SPA) proof of concept flight for the Trailblazer mission. Trailblazer is a 1U CubeSat launched in 2012 under the ELaNa four mission.[41]

On September 13, 2012, eleven CubeSats were launched from eight P-Pods, as part of the "OutSat" secondary payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.[42] This is the largest number of CubeSats (and largest volume of 24U) successfully placed to orbit on a single launch, this was made possible by use of the new NPS CubeSat Launcher system (NPSCuL) developed at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). The following CubeSats were placed on orbit: SMDC-ONE 2.2 (Baker), SMDC-ONE 2.1 (Able), AeroCube 4.0(x3), Aeneas, CSSWE, CP5, CXBN, CINEMA, and Re (STARE).[43]

Long CubeSats being launched from the ISS on February 25, 2014. The launcher is visible as well, attached to a robotic arm.

Five CubeSats (Raiko, Niwaka, We-Wish, TechEdSat, F-1) were placed into orbit from International Space Station on October 4, 2012, as a technology demonstration of small satellite deployment from ISS. They were launched and delivered to ISS as a cargo of Kounotori 3, and the ISS astronaut prepared the deployment mechanism attached to Japanese Experiment Module's robotic arm.[44][45][46] Similarly, the following H-II Transfer Vehicle mission Kounotori 4, launched on August 4, 2013, carried four CubeSats (ArduSat-1, ArduSat-X, PicoDragon, TechEdSat-3) to ISS. ArduSat-1, ArduSat-X, and PicoDragon were deployed into orbit from ISS on 19 November 2013,[47] and TechEdSat-3 was deployed on 20 November 2013.[48]

Four CubeSats were deployed from the Cygnus Mass Simulator, which was launched April 21, 2013 on the maiden flight of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket.[49] Three of them are 1U PhoneSats built by NASA's Ames Research Center to demonstrate the use of smart phones as avionics in CubeSats. The fourth is a 3U spacecraft, called Dove-1, built by Planet Labs (then Cosmogia Inc.). Earlier that same day, their Dove-2 CubeSat was deployed from the Bion-M spacecraft in orbit.[50]

On May 7, 2013, the ESTCube-1 CubeSat, the first Estonian satellite, was placed into orbit along with the Proba-V and VNREDSat 1A satellites aboard an Avio Vega rocket launched from French Guyana.

On December 5, 2013, twelve CubeSats as part of the "GemSat" secondary payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.[51] This is the second flight of NPSCuL, so the total volume was again 24U from eight Cal Poly P-PODs. The following CubeSats were placed on orbit: AeroCube 5 (Aerospace Corp.), ALICE (Air Force Institute of Technology), SNaP, TacSat 6 & two SMDC-ONE (U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command), CUNYSAT 1 (Medgar Evers College), IPEX (NASA's Jet Propulsion Labaratory at Cal Poly), MCubed 2 (University of Michigan), FIREBIRD 1A & 1B (Montana State University).

A total of thirty-three CubeSats were deployed from the International Space Station, a feat which started on February 11, 2014. Of those thirty-three, twenty-eight are part of the Flock-1 constellation of Earth-imaging CubeSats designed by Planet Labs. Of the other five CubeSats launched from the ISS, two are also from US-based companies, two are from Lithuania, and one is from Peru.[52]

A number of CubeSats were lost during the explosion of the Cygnus CRS Orb-3 launch vehicle.

The "crowd-funded" KickSat was launched April 18, 2014.

Future development[edit]

An ambitious project is the QB50, an international network of 50 CubeSats for multi-point, in-situ measurements in the lower thermosphere (90–350 km) and re-entry research. QB50 is an initiative of the Von Karman Institute and is funded by the European Union. Double-unit ("2-U") CubeSats (10x10x20 cm) are foreseen, with one unit (the 'functional' unit) providing the usual satellite functions and the other unit (the 'science' unit) accommodating a set of standardised sensors for lower thermosphere and re-entry research. 35 CubeSats are envisaged to be provided by universities in 19 European countries, 10 by universities in the US, 2 by universities in Canada, 3 by Japanese universities, 1 by an institute in Brazil, and others. Ten double or triple CubeSats are foreseen to serve for in-orbit technology demonstration of new space technologies. All 50 CubeSats will be launched together on a single Cyclone-4 launch vehicle in February 2016.[53] The Request for Proposals (RFP) for the QB50 CubeSat was released on February 15, 2012.

Dedicated launchers[edit]

A Dnepr rocket from ISC Kosmotras

NASA has launched more than 30 CubeSats over the last several years, and as of 2015, it has a backlog of more than 50 awaiting launch.[54] No matter how inexpensive or versatile CubeSats may be, they must hitch rides on large rockets launching much larger spacecraft, at prices starting around $100,000.[54]

SpaceX[55][56] and Japan Manned Space Systems Corporation (JAMSS)[57][58] are two recent companies that offer commercial launch services for CubeSats as secondary payload, but a launch backlog still exists. Meanwhile, India's ISRO has been commercially launching foreign CubeSats since 2009 as secondary payloads.[59]

Very few companies and research institutes offer regular launch opportunities in clusters of several cubes. ISC Kosmotras and Eurokot are two companies that offer such services.[60]

On 5 May 2015, NASA announced a program based at the Kennedy Space Center dedicated to develop a new class of rockets designed specifically to launch very small satellites: the NASA Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS),[54][61][62] which will offer a payload mass of 30 kg to 60 kg for each launcher.[61]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c Helvajian2008, Henry; editors, Siegfried W. Janson, (2008). Small Satellites: Past, Present, and Future. El Segundo, Calif.: Aerospace Press. ISBN 978-1-884989-22-3. 
  4. ^ "Cubist Movement". Space News. 2012-08-13. p. 30. When professors Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University and Bob Twiggs of Stanford University invented the CubeSat, they never imagined that the tiny satellites would be adopted by universities, companies and government agencies around the world. They simply wanted to design a spacecraft with capabilities similar to Sputnik that graduate student could design, build, test and operate. For size, the professors settled on a 10-centimeter cube because it was large enough to accommodate a basic communications payload, solar panels and a battery. 
  5. ^ a b Leonard David (2004). "CubeSats: Tiny Spacecraft, Huge Payoffs". Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  6. ^ Rob Goldsmith (October 6, 2009). "Satellite pioneer joins Morehead State's space science faculty". Space Fellowship. Retrieved 2010-09-20. 
  7. ^ a b Leonard David (2006). "CubeSat losses spur new development". Retrieved 2008-12-11. 
  8. ^ a b The official standard only defines up to 3U and "3U+" (a slightly larger but same-mass 3U). Larger sizes use have varying definitions depending on source. There is even confusion about 3U and 1U: the official standard claims a 3U masses at most 4 kg, while Spaceflight Services claims (see ) that 3U extends to 5 kg.
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  13. ^ The ION CubeSat was destroyed in July 2006 as the Dnepr rocket failed 86 sec after launch.
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  41. ^ – Trailblazer
  42. ^ (Sep 2012). "Air Force Launches Secret Spy Satellite NROL-36". Retrieved March 21, 2013. 
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External links[edit]