So You Want to Build a CubeSat?

Well… it’s not going to be easy, but with the right team, preparation, and funding it is doable and will give you incredible experience with working on space systems.

Satellites are extremely expensive. Weather satellites can cost approximately $290 million, spy satellites can cost upwards of $100 million, and this is for the components alone. Launching the satellite into space can cost anywhere from $10 million to $400 million depending on the vehicle used, and weight and size of the satellite. Because of this, for decades since the first satellite launch (Sputnik 1 in 1957), satellite design and launch was exclusively reserved for large governments and their associated organizations. However, this changed in 1999 when researchers began exploring CubeSats to make space accessible and affordable for anyone interested. CubeSat sizes are based on the standard CubeSat “unit” – 1U. A 1U CubeSat is a 10 cm cube with a mass of approximately 1 to 1.33 kg. CubeSats must conform to a factor of this standard 1U size to make them most easily and affordably launchable into space.

The advent of these miniature satellites have made it possible for anyone ranging from universities, to high schools, to middle schools, to hobbyists to launch CubeSats into space. The typical project phases for a CubeSat are as follows:

  1. Project Phases
    1. Concept Development (1-6 months)
    2. Securing Funding (1-12 months)
    3. Merit and Feasibility Reviews (1-2 months)
    4. CubeSat Design (1-6 months)
    5. Development and Submittal of Proposal in Response to CSLI Call (3-4 months)
    6. Selection and Manifesting (1-36 months)
    7. Mission coordination (9-18 months)
    8. Licensing (4-6 months)
    9. Flight-Specific Documentation Development and Submittal (10-12 months)
    10. Ground Station Design, Development, and Testing (2-12 months)
    11. CubeSat Hardware Fabrication and Testing (2-12 months)
    12. Mission Readiness Reviews (half-day)
    13. CubeSat to Dispenser Integration and Testing (1 day)
    14. Dispenser to Launch Vehicle Integration (1 day)
    15. Launch (1 day)
    16. Mission Operations (variable, up to 20 years)

If you are interested in working on a CubeSat or proposing a CubeSat design to NASA I would recommend reading the comprehensive NASA document that goes into these different project phases in great detail:

For a brief overview, I will go over many of the different parts commonly found on a satellite and a CubeSat.

Almost all satellites contain the components shown in the diagram below: 

  1. Power
    1. The power system is what keeps the satellite running while in space. It is normally solar cells that convert sunlight into energy.
  2. Housing
    1. Every satellite needs housing. Housing is the metal or composite frame and the body of the satellite is the bus. The bus is what holds all of the pieces together.
  3. Antennas
    1. Antenna systems are used to receive and transmit signals to and from Earth
  4. Transponders
    1. Transponders convert uplink frequencies to downlink frequencies so that the antennas can successfully communicate with the ground station on Earth.
  5. Command and Data Handling
    1. This is the operational heart of the satellite. Command and control systems monitor the satellite, handle commands received from Earth, and carry out operations on the satellite.
  6. Guidance and Stabilization
    1. Sensors monitor the satellite’s position to ensure it remains in the correct orbit and is oriented towards the correct target. This is extremely important to keep communication with the ground station active, and to ensure the satellite remains on the right course in its orbit.
  7. Thermal Control
    1. The thermal control protects the satellite components from the extreme temperature changes it will experience while being launched to space.

CubeSats are awesome. The ability for anyone to participate in space research is exciting and presents an incredible opportunity for anyone who is interested. While most CubeSats are typically dropped out of the rocket when it is in low Earth orbit, your CubeSat may have the opportunity to even be launched by hand:

This summer I will be further investigating satellites and CubeSats and the cyber vulnerabilities they potentially have. Learning about the components of satellites was a great place to start thinking about potential hacking vulnerabilities. I am looking forward to furthering my knowledge of space systems, and I am excited to see what I can discover this summer!

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