Tiny satellites, can they democratize space?

For almost 60 years, mankind has been placing satellites in orbit. They’re usually large, complex and very expensive, but since 2003, a class of tiny satellites called CubeSats has been democratizing access to space by giving researchers, academics and even school kids the opportunity to participate in space science.

TRANSCRIPT

FOR ALMOST 60 YEARS, MANKIND HAS BEEN PLACING SATELLITES IN ORBIT.

THEY'RE USUALLY LARGE, COMPLEX, AND VERY EXPENSIVE.

BUT SINCE 2003, A CLASS OF TINY SATELLITES, CALLED 'CubeSats,' HAS BEEN DEMOCRATIZING ACCESS TO SPACE BY GIVING RESEARCHERS, ACADEMICS, AND EVEN SCHOOLKIDS THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO SPACE SCIENCE.

HERE'S A LOOK.

♪♪

TODAY, A NEW MOON IS IN THE SKY, A 23-INCH METAL SPHERE PLACED IN ORBIT BY A RUSSIAN ROCKET.

OCTOBER 4, 1957 -- A SMALL METAL SPHERE THAT DOES NO MORE THAN EMIT A BEEP USHERS IN THE SPACE AGE AND QUICKLY LEADS TO TECHNOLOGICAL WONDERS IN COMMUNICATIONS, SCIENCE, NATIONAL DEFENSE, AND MUCH MORE.

TYPICALLY, SATELLITES ARE LARGE, VERY COMPLEX, AND VERY EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

THE COST TO DEVELOP, DESIGN, BUILD, TEST, LAUNCH, AND MAINTAIN ONE CAN BE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.

BUT IS IT POSSIBLE TO DEMOCRATIZE ACCESS TO SPACE?

ENTER CubeSats.

A CubeSat IS BASICALLY A TINY SPACECRAFT, A TINY SATELLITE.

THEY COME IN UNITS OF CUBES THAT ARE 10 CENTIMETERS ON A SIDE IN EITHER ONE, TWO, THREE, OR SIX UNITS.

THE IDEA FOR CubeSats ORIGINATED WITH AN ACADEMIC EXERCISE.

DR. BOB TWIGGS OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY IN THE LATE '90s WALKED INTO A CLASSROOM WITH A BEANIE BABY BOX AND ASKED HIS STUDENTS FOR YOUR FINAL PROJECT TO DEVELOP A SPACECRAFT WITHIN THIS BOX THAT COULD DO SOME TYPE OF SCIENCE ON AN ORBIT.

AND FROM THAT, IT JUST TOOK OFF.

PEOPLE STARTED BUILDING MORE AND MORE AND MORE OF THEM.

AND SO, THE STANDARD KIND OF STUCK.

OF COURSE, DEMOCRATIZING SPACE MEANS GETTING THINGS INTO ORBIT CHEAPLY.

FOR CubeSats, THAT MEANS HITCHHIKING A RIDE.

TODAY, THERE ARE TWO WAYS THAT WE CAN GET CubeSats INTO ORBIT.

THE FIRST IS TO FLY THEM AS AUXILIARY CARGO ON AN UNMANNED ROCKET THAT'S GOING INTO SPACE TO CARRY A LARGER PRIMARY SPACECRAFT.

THE SECOND IS TO FLY THEM UP TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION AS CARGO AND THEN DEPLOY THEM.

BECAUSE ALL CubeSats ARE BUILT TO A STRICT SIZE STANDARD, ENGINEERS WERE ABLE TO DESIGN A SIMPLE, INEXPENSIVE DEPLOYER.

SO, WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS THE POLY PICO ORBITAL DEPLOYER, OR 'P-POD' FOR SHORT.

IT'S 30x10x10 CENTIMETERS ON THE INSIDE FOR THE SPECIFICATIONS OF CubeSat.

AND ONCE A SIGNAL IS RECEIVED FROM THE LAUNCH VEHICLE, IT WILL RELEASE ITS BULK.

THE DOOR WILL COME OPEN, AND INSIDE IS A PUSHER SPRING THAT PUSHES THE CubeSat OUT.

AND THEN IT'S ON ITS MERRY WAY TO GO DO ITS SCIENCE.

SINCE THE FIRST CubeSats WERE LAUNCHED IN 2003, SEVERAL HUNDRED HAVE FLOWN.

MANY HAVE BEEN DESIGNED AND BUILT BY UNIVERSITY TEAMS.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE EXAMPLES IS GRIFEX.

AND GRIFEX WAS INTENDED TO GO DEMONSTRATE A VERY SMALL IMAGING CHIP THAT WAS BRAND-NEW, NEW TECHNOLOGY THAT JPL WANTED TO USE ON A LARGER, VERY EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

BY FLYING THIS LITTLE CHIP ON A CubeSat AND DEMONSTRATING THAT IT WORKED WELL IN LOW-EARTH ORBIT, THEY WERE ABLE TO BUY DOWN A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF RISK BEFORE THEY ACTUALLY GO TAKE THIS NEW PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY AND INVEST IT INTO A HUNDREDS-OF-MILLIONS-DOLLAR SPACECRAFT.

ADDIE DOVE IS DEVELOPING A CubeSat THAT WILL LIKEWISE PROVIDE VALUABLE INFORMATION TO FUTURE SPACECRAFT DESIGNERS.

OUR CubeSat IS CALLED SurfSat, A SATELLITE THAT'S GONNA BE STUDYING SURFACE CHARGING.

AND WHAT THAT MEANS IS WE'LL HAVE DIFFERENT TYPES OF MATERIALS ON THE OUTSIDE OF OUR LITTLE CubeSat.

THIS IS VERY PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ANY SATELLITE ORBITING THE EARTH TO UNDERSTAND IF IT'S GONNA HAVE A STATIC-DISCHARGE EVENT THAT COULD RUIN THE ELECTRONICS ON THE SPACECRAFT OR RUIN THE OUTSIDE OF THE SPACECRAFT.

AND SO, WE WANT TO COME UP WITH WAYS TO UNDERSTAND WHEN THAT'S GONNA HAPPEN AND WAYS TO MITIGATE THAT OR PREVENT IT FROM HAPPENING.

JOSH COLWELL IS BUILDING A CubeSat CALLED Q-PACE.

THIS IS AN EXPERIMENT TO RE-CREATE THE CONDITIONS IN THE VERY EARLY STAGES OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM, OR ANY PLANETARY SYSTEM, AND UNDERSTAND THE VERY FIRST STEPS OF PLANET FORMATION.

SO, THE MAIN COMPONENTS OF THE EXPERIMENT ARE A MICROCONTROLLER -- THAT'S THE COMPUTER THAT OPERATES THE EXPERIMENT.

WE HAVE BATTERIES THAT ARE POWERED BY SOLAR PANELS ON THE OUTSIDE OF THE EXPERIMENT.

AND THEN THE EXPERIMENT ITSELF IS A CHAMBER WITH PARTICLES THAT IS MOUNTED ON SPRINGS, FLEXIBLE SUPPORTS.

AND WE HAVE THREE SOLENOIDS THAT WE USE TO CAUSE THIS TEST CELL TO VIBRATE.

AND THOSE VIBRATIONS CAUSE THE PARTICLES IN THE CHAMBERS TO MOVE AND BOUNCE OFF EACH OTHER.

AND THEN WE FOLLOW WITH OUR CAMERA THE EVOLUTION OF THE VELOCITIES OR THE SPEEDS OF THOSE PARTICLES AS THEY COLLIDE.

Q-PACE IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF HOW A SPACECRAFT CAN BE BUILT INEXPENSIVELY.

WE FIRST MAKE A 3-D DESIGN USING CAD SOFTWARE.

THEN, WE MAKE A 3-D PRINTED PROTOTYPE TO MAKE SURE THAT THE DESIGN THAT WE'VE GOT ON PAPER ACTUALLY WORKS.

AND THEN, USING COMPONENTS SUCH AS THE SOLAR CELLS, WE'RE USING SOME COMMON CONSUMER COMPONENTS -- THE GoPro CAMERA TO COLLECT VIDEO, A RASPBERRY PI MICROCONTROLLER.

CALDWELL'S Q-SAT PROVES THAT A VERY SMALL SPACECRAFT CAN DO VERY BIG SCIENCE.

ONE OF THE BIG QUESTIONS THAT I THINK WE FACE AS A SPECIES IS, ARE WE ALONE?

AND ONE OF THE BIG PIECES OF THAT PUZZLE IS, HOW MANY PLANETS ARE THERE OUT IN THE REST OF THE GALAXY?

WHAT KINDS OF PLANETS ARE THEY?

ARE THEY CLOSE TO THEIR STARS?

ARE THEY FAR AWAY?

DO OTHER SOLAR SYSTEMS LOOK LIKE OUR OWN, OR IS OURS RELATIVELY UNUSUAL?

SO, UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS OF PLANET FORMATION WILL HELP US ADDRESS THOSE QUESTIONS, HELP US UNDERSTAND HOW UNIQUE OR COMMON A PLANETARY SYSTEM LIKE OUR OWN IS IN THE GALAXY AND HOW COMMON A PLANET LIKE THE EARTH THAT IS HOSPITABLE AND HABITABLE FOR LIFE MIGHT BE.

GOING FORWARD, CubeSats WILL CONTINUE TO DEMOCRATIZE ACCESS TO SPACE.

AND THEY HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO PROVIDE BREAKTHROUGHS IN BOTH SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

I THINK THE FUTURE OF CubeSats FOR SPACE SCIENCE IS VERY BRIGHT.

AS WE GAIN MORE EXPERIENCE WITH THE LIMITATIONS OF THE FORM FACTOR, THE COST WILL COME DOWN.

WE'LL UNDERSTAND HOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE SIZE.

SO, YOU CAN SEND THEM TO LITTLE ENVIRONMENTS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO SEND BIG, EXPENSIVE SPACECRAFT.

AND YOU CAN ALSO DO A LOT OF DIFFERENT SCIENCE IN DIFFERENT PLACES IF YOU HAVE A LOT OF LITTLE CubeSats.

AND THE ABILITY TO PLACE LARGE NUMBERS OF CubeSats INTO ORBIT TO WORK TOGETHER OPENS UP VAST POSSIBILITIES.

IF I PUT A CONSTELLATION OF SMALL SATELLITES THAT SERVE AS INTERNET NODES FOR COMMUNICATION, THEORETICALLY WE CAN CREATE A SITUATION WHERE YOU CAN GET ONLINE USING A SMALL ANTENNA FROM ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

THAT'S A CAPABILITY THAT DOESN'T EXIST TODAY.

AND IT MIGHT DO A LOT TO HELP AREAS IN THE WORLD THAT ARE UNDERSERVED BY THE INTERNET.

I THINK OUR IMAGINATION IS THE ONLY REAL LIMIT, IN TERMS OF MAKING USE OF CubeSat AND THE CubeSat PLATFORM TO DO A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT THINGS.

[ BEEPING ]