The popularity of cubesats has skyrocketed in recent times, but some are questioning if the form aspect has hit its limits.
Siegfried Janson, a former Aerospace Corporation engineer, who currently works as a consultant, evaluated the background of smallsat usage at the Annual Small Satellite Conference on August 10, splitting the Space Age into 3 phases: the initial years when the small satellites were frequently the only alternative, a later era dominated by large satellites, and a “New Space” era that began in the late 1990s.
The number of nanosatellites launched in the New Space period has increased from one in the year 1997 to over 100 annually in recent years. Nanosatellites are a mass class that contains most cubesats. “We’ve witnessed an almost rapid rise in the nanosatellite world,” he said, with a twofold time of around two and a half years. Commercial applications, like constellations produced by Planet and Spire, have fueled the growth. However, there has been increased interest in larger smallsats to support endeavors such as broadband megaconstellations. The number of “super-microsatellites,” or spacecraft weighing between 100 – 300 kg, has increased dramatically in the previous two years, mainly owing to SpaceX Starlink satellites.
The rise of larger smallsats, as well as new specialized and rideshare launch possibilities, generated a query during another conference session on August 11: are cubesats dead? Panelists noted that any rumors about cubesats’ doom are vastly exaggerated. “A couple of the small rockets don’t believe they are since they’re developing primarily for cubesat-scale deployments of 10 – 20 kilograms,” stated Northrop Grumman’s Carlos Niederstrasser, who gave an updated evaluation of small launch vehicle business at the conference.
“We may not see the insane increase of cubesat numbers that we’ve seen in the last ten years,” he added, noting that spacecraft weighing 50 to 200 kilos are seeing more growth. “That little form factor has a lot of utility,” says the author. Jordi Puig-Suari of the California Polytechnic State University located in San Luis Obispo, one of the initial cubesat creators, came to the cubesat’s defense as well. He argued that one advantage of cubesats is their size standardization, which makes it easier to find deployments for them. “That makes a huge impact since the launch provider doesn’t have to undertake any analysis,” he explained. “It’s quite simple to put cubesat accommodations in a launch vehicle that can be filled at the last minute. Having this really standardized, the containerized system still has its benefits.” Cubesats were first used as technology demonstrations in the early 2000s, and he claimed there is still a demand for cubesats for that reason. “The tech demo is something that will never die.”