Beanie Babies, the invention of CubeSat and student-designed and built satellites

The democratization of space began 20 years ago with Beanie Babies – or, more accurately, the clear acrylic box that brought them home. These 4-inch (10-cm) cubes inspired space engineer Bob Twiggs to create CubeSat, the first satellite with a standard design.

From 1957 when the first human-made satellite, Sputnik-1, was launched until 1999 when Twiggs proposed CubeSat, satellites came in all shapes and sizes. And almost all satellites were designed from scratch. CubeSat provided the first universally accepted satellite standard – a cube with 4-inch sides and weighing about 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms).

When Twiggs’ conceived the concept of CubeSat, called 1U, his intention was to introduce engineering students to satellite design though hands-on training. Their assignment was to develop and conduct a complete space mission with Sputnik-1-like capabilities. Now, to meet the demands of more complex applications, multiple 1U CubeSats can be combined to form larger systems which are called 2U, 3U and so on.

I am a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and have designed and flown many spaceflight experiments to study phenomena such as space weather, which probes the effects of solar storms on various technologies we rely on for daily life such as radio communication and navigation. I’ve also designed technologies needed to characterize the exoplanets around nearby stars. I now have the opportunity to share my expertise and inspire a new generation of space engineers by teaching undergraduate students how to design CubeSats, which could eventually be launched into space.

CubeSat and P-POD: The game changers

UMass Lowell undergraduate student satellite SPACE HAUC in development. Top right shows a full-scale model of the 3U CubeSat. The tape measures will be used as backup antennas. The protective pink foam covers a small camera that will be used to image the Sun. UMass Lowell, CC BY-SA
For more than 50 years access to space was prohibitively expensive and only nations and big corporations with large facilities and an experienced cadre of engineers could finance these ventures. That changed in 1999 when aerospace engineer Jordi Puig-Suari and Twiggs introduced the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD), a standard launching system for space-based CubeSat. Each P-POD carries between one and three CubeSats, which in turn, are placed in orbit by launchers carrying science or commercial payloads. Most major launchers usually have excess capacity and allow such ridesharing. Once in space, P-PODs deploy their satellites.

CubeSats have now become a mainstay in commercial applications. In 2017, an Indian booster provided rides to a record 103 nanosatellites – which weigh between 2 and 22 pounds (1 and 10 kilograms). What is even more impressive is that a three-year-old company, Planet, has developed and launched 88 3U CubeSats for imaging applications.

Globally, the space economy is thriving. NASA’s budget is only a fraction of the US$345 billion global space enterprise. As a society we have come to rely on systems in space for many aspects of everyday life from communication to assessing climate change and from international security to innovation.

Student designed CubeSats

The total number of nanosatellites in space has already exceeded 1,000. It is therefore easy to predict high demand for skilled space scientists and technologists in the future. But how do educators train them?