Do you have a burning scientific question that can be answered only by putting a satellite into orbit? You're in luck. It’s now feasible to do just that, using only off-the-shelf technology, in a design called a CubeSat. It’ll run you around $50,000. For university, commercial or government projects, this new price point is a game changer.
A CubeSat is a 10 centimeter cube, or exactly one liter of volume, that weighs about one kilogram. Anything you can fit into that shape is good to go. You can even bolt two or three cubes together. In the parlance, a standard CubeSat is a “1U,” two cubes is “2U,” and three is “3U.” There are detailed design specs freely available online.
If you’ve got a science mission that qualifies, NASA will launch your CubeSat for free as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative. If you don’t qualify for NASA’s program, it could cost $100,000 or more to hitch a ride aboard a launch vehicle, but that’s still vastly cheaper than a commercial satellite launch.
The cubes are loaded into a Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (or P-POD) and dropped into orbit. A P-POD can hold up to three cubes. Over 100 CubeSats have been launched since 1999. They can remain in orbit for a month or so before falling back to Earth.
What would you do with a CubeSat? You can take photos from orbit, collect atmospheric data, perform biology experiments, send radio transmissions or just test your equipment. We live in a golden age for do-it-yourself technology.
Thanks to Stephen Murphey for sending in the cool video!