- Status Report
- Nov 20, 2023
Maximizing CubeSat Utility for Science
In recent years, the use of CubeSats has increased significantly. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examines how to maximize their value.
The first CubeSats were introduced just over fifteen years ago. Since then, these small satellites have rapidly advanced academic, industry, and government capabilities for conducting low-cost, high-priority scientific research. For industry and government agencies, CubeSats also facilitate affordable and efficient technology development because users can test unproven technology at earlier stages as the investment requirements are relatively small. In addition, CubeSats function as unique teaching tools, providing hands-on training and access to space for students as young as elementary school age, as well as skill-development opportunities for early-career members of NASA’s technical workforce.
The combination of low cost and rapid results makes CubeSats appealing to a range of audiences. Their science applications are especially intriguing, which led NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to approach the National Academies in 2014 about reviewing the potential of the CubeSat platform and recommending ways to increase its usage in the science community.
The resulting report, Achieving Science with CubeSats: Thinking Inside the Box, finds that CubeSats are a proven, important scientific tool that enables agencies and other organizations to obtain high-value science, including meeting some of the science goals established in decadal surveys. The report cautions that CubeSats are not a substitute for all platforms: larger spacecraft are needed for missions in which high-precision pointing, high-powered instruments, or a suite of instruments is required to realize the science objectives. Nonetheless, CubeSats are ideally positioned to address a variety of science missions.
In the report, the Committee on Achieving Science Goals with CubeSats observes that the small satellites actually transform how space science is conducted by providing a more cost-effective option and enabling discovery in novel ways. A particularly compelling use for CubeSats may be as part of a swarm or constellation, in which 10 to 100 are employed in tandem. Together, these CubeSats could provide multiple simultaneous measurements, making them ideally suited to address the objectives of Earth science and space physics initiatives. The report finds that CubeSats offer the potential for meaningful advances in science capabilities for many other disciplines as well, including solar physics, planetary science, astronomy, astrophysics, and biological and physical science in space.
The National Academies report provides recommendations for maximizing CubeSat utility. These are directed primarily at NASA, as the vast majority of CubeSat use resides in agency programs. One recommendation is for the NSF, which initiated the first CubeSat-based science program. The report suggests that the NSF should continue to support and fund CubeSat programs, with a dual focus on producing high-priority science while training the next generation of scientists and engineers. They should also concentrate on finding ways to increase CubeSat applications across science disciplines.
To NASA, the report offers a number of recommendations from a programmatic perspective. It stresses the need for a centralized management structure for CubeSat development and usage to facilitate more efficient science and technology exploration, decreasing the potential for duplication of effort across programs or missions. It also encourages NASA to develop a diverse range of CubeSat programs that meet a variety of science and technology-development goals, and to continue using the platform to provide training opportunities for internal professional development. A strong focus of the report is on the need to develop “constellation capabilities” that leverage the unmatched spatial and temporal coverage provided by a coordinated group of CubeSats.
CubeSat technology itself is addressed in the report, which identifies a number of areas for improvement. Lack of thermal control currently limits the type of science CubeSats can conduct. Other areas in need of development include high-bandwidth communications, precision attitude control, propulsion systems, and miniaturized instrument technology. Looking beyond agency development initiatives, NASA is encouraged to assess the contributions of private industry and to work with industry to ensure all efforts are complimentary, not redundant.
The report points out that the continuing surge in CubeSat use demands that NASA and the NSF develop guidelines to advance their use responsibly without limiting innovation. An orbital debris policy must be considered, as CubeSats are not maneuverable in space and so pose some threat, particularly to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, bandwidth licensing is a growing concern as the number of CubeSats on orbit increases. Finally, launch availability will play a large role in dictating the future role of CubeSats in science missions. Until now, CubeSats have generally been secondary payloads on larger missions, which is cost effective but limits control over when and where they go. NASA recently took steps to address this issue through its Launch Services Program, which awarded Venture Class Launch Services contracts to three commercial companies for CubeSat-specific launches. More such initiatives may be needed as the CubeSat category grows.
The expanding role of CubeSats in obtaining high-value science, promoting technology development, and providing novel educational opportunities does not show signs of diminishing in the near future. Exactly how wide-ranging their contributions to scientific research will be is uncertain: ultimately, they may be best utilized in a narrowly-defined context, in the tradition of balloons and sounding rockets, or their utility may drive the development of new kinds of missions or science goals. Either way, CubeSats have clearly emerged as innovative tools in realizing science objectives and expanding access to space.