This past week, some CubeSat developers got to see something that few space programs – and almost no CubeSat programs – ever do.
These CubeSats are “1U” size – 10 x 10 x 10 cm cubes – and deployed from a device mounted to the International Space Station. This deployment mechanism afforded Expedition 33 astronauts the ability to photograph the tiny spacecraft as they serenely drifted past the Station’s solar wings. Not many spacecraft builders ever get to see their work take flight!
CubeSats are awesome because they cost less than $100,000 to build and launch, which means that they can be playgrounds for new technologies. In an economic environment where it takes $30 or 60 or 80 million to put a satellite to orbit, and where businesses’ most intense priority is on increasing next-quarter earnings, very few private organizations are willing to gamble on new technologies or designs – even if those designs might improve the state of the art and give a company a huge advantage. But CubeSats are cheap. They fall within university research group budgets. They let technology developers take risks. They can be pathfinders for new ideas!