More miniature satellites being sent up into space

Global Business

More satellites are being sent up into space but rather than large ones, these days the satellite industry is all about miniaturization with so-called CubeSats.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports from this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado.

It was billed as the “SmallSat Express.” Last December, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from California with 64 small satellites on board. U-class spacecraft, more commonly known as CubeSats, are pouring into space these days.

“This is a typical CubeSat,” said Rhonda Ahrens with Glenair Sales Group pointing to a mock satellite in her company’s booth at this year’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

CubeSats, typically a kilogram and a half or less in weight, are used to perform space and Earth science and to collect data.

“They’re cheaper, lighter, less costly than a massive satellite that’s as big as a school bus,” Ahrens said. They were a prime focus at the symposium, a leading annual space industry event.

“Over the past five years I’ve been able to see quite a substantial growth,” said Matt Carton, a Systems Engineer with Blue Canyon Technologies, which builds CubeSats for academic, commercial and government customers.

“Technology has sort of pushed it,” Carton said. “As things have gotten smaller and smaller, capabilities have been able to get better and better in a smaller package.”

The spacecraft, often launched as secondary payloads on other missions, are frequently deployed in low Earth orbit where satellite constellations now help provide better communications and internet connectivity on Earth. A variety of manufacturers now help outfit CubeSats with, in the case of MMA Design, deployable solar arrays and antennas.

“The small sat industry is a leader in innovation and disruption,” said Mitch Wiens, the company’s owner. He added that because of their size, low cost and relatively short life, several years, CubeSats can constantly be reinvented. Innoflight, which builds electronics for small satellites, has found that too.

“So you can leverage the latest commercial off the shelf that only needs to last for two to three years versus having to do these really expensive radiation tolerant parts that really don’t give you the performance anywhere close to what you can have now,” said David Andaleon, Innoflight’s Business Development Manager.

In fact, less hazardous propulsion technology for these spacecraft is now on the way. The sky is not the limit for CubeSats, two of which ventured into deep space last November to notify scientists of the Mars InSight landing. When it comes to satellites, bigger may not be better.

“Yeah, smaller and more is better,” Andaleon said, laughing.

While satellite traffic and cybersecurity remain concerns in the industry, there’s no doubt: a CubeSat boom is underway.

“It’s exploding,” said Ahrens. “It’s so exciting.”