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February 2, 2015

Technology has a way of devolving from the complex and unique to the simple and ordinary. Pressmen from Gutenburg's time onwards labored mightily to produce printed books, while authors today self-publish their works with a press on a keyboard. Marconi struggled to attain transoceanic telecommunications at the turn of the twentieth century, and now amateur radio operators do the same routinely from the comfort of their homes.

Marconi wireless test at Flat Holm island, 13 May 1897

Marconi wireless test at Flat Holm island, 1897.

This was the first radio transmission over open sea, over a distance of three miles. Marconi achieved transatlantic communication on December 17, 1902.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

So it is also for spaceflight. The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 artificial satellite on October 4, 1957, and the United States followed soon thereafter with its Explorer 1 on February 1, 1958. In those days, putting even a small satellite into orbit was difficult.[1] Now, modern launch vehicles make boosting satellites into orbit routine, and millions of people get their entertainment from direct-broadcast satellites.

Now, nearly anyone can launch a small, one kilogram, cubic satellite, 10x10x10 cm in size, into Earth orbit for about $100,000. These CubeSats have been conventionally launched, and deployed also from the International Space Station. A lengthy list of launched CubeSats can be found on Wikipedia. The journal, Science, designated the CubeSat as one of the significant scientific achievements of 2014.[2]

The CubeSat concept is just a little more than a decade old, but the history of amateur satellites started much earlier. A group of amateur radio operators, some of whom had experience in satellite technology, convinced NASA to replace a small balancing weight in a satellite payload with a small satellite of their own design and construction. NASA requirements were that this satellite, known as OSCAR 1 needed to be a particular shape and weight, and it could contain no propulsion system.

OSCAR 1, was launched into Earth orbit just a little more than four years after the launch of Sputnik I. OSCAR 1 contained a 140 milliwatt, 144.983 MHz, battery-powered transmitter broadcasting "HI" in Morse code (••••  ••) for about three weeks. It was the first private spacecraft. Subsequent OSCAR satellites were designed to act as radio repeaters, the amateur radio equivalent of the Telstar satellite.

In a move to extend the capability of inexpensive satellites to do other things, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University (Stanford, California) developed the CubeSat specification in 1999. CubeSat documentation is available online at cubesat.org, and there are also workshops to train developers in CubeSat fundamentals.[3]

University of Michigan M-Cubed CubeSat

University of Michigan "Michigan Multipurpose Minisat" (M-Cubed) CubeSat.

This CubeSat, designed for Earth imaging, has been in orbit for more than three years.

(Via M-Cubed Web Site.)

More than seventy-five CubeSats were placed into orbit in 2014. Their low cost and rapidity of deployment have allowed developers to field risky technologies and use the best available components, such as better solar cells and faster computer chips, immediately.[2] They are being used in multispectral imaging to monitor urbanization and deforestation.[2]

CubeSats don't even need to be cubes, although their length can be expanded in one direction, only, up to six unit lengths (10 cm x 10 cm x 60 cm). NASA has developed a CubeSat launch system called a "Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer" (P-POD).[4] NASA, which has always courted public interest as a way to keep the the funds flowing, has a CubeSat Launch Initiative as part of its Education Strategic Coordination Framework. This initiative encourages scientific and educational uses of CubeSats.[4]

Launch of CubeSats from the International Space Station

Launch of CubeSats from the International Space Station on February 11, 2014.

These were launched by the Small Satellite Orbital Deployer attached to the Kibo laboratory robotic arm.

(NASA image.)

NASA has a goal in its CubeSat Launch Initiative of having fifty CubeSats launched by teams in all fifty US states within five years. At this point, there are still twenty-one states missing from the roster of CubeSats either launched or in development, including Tikalon's home state of New Jersey. Teams from New Jersey's neighboring states, New York and Pennsylvania, have CubeSat teams. NASA, however, is not providing funding for the development of these satellites. [5]

Portion of a NASA CubeSat poster

Portion of a NASA CubeSat poster. Click for larger image.
Via NASA.)[6]


  1. Vanguard TV3 Rocket Launch Explosion, YouTube Video.
  2. Eric Hand, "Comet Breakthrough of the Year + People's choice," Science, vol. 346, no. 6216 (December 19, 2014), pp. 1442-1443, DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6216.1442.
  3. CubeSat Web Site.
  4. NASA CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI).
  5. CubeSat Launch Initiative: 50 CubeSats from 50 States in 5 years, NASA, July 31, 2014.
  6. NASA CubeSat Poster.                              

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