If IKEA made Sputnik

I’m moving house in a few weeks’ time, which means I’m idly spending my tube journeys to and from work reading the IKEA catalogue, trying to work out which combination of Billy Bookshelf and Klobo Sofa will look best in the small corner of North East London I’ll soon be calling home.

Meanwhile, in low Earth orbit – the patch of sky about 150-600 km above our heads where the International Space Station floats about – flat-pack DIY generic designs called CubeSats are widely and increasingly in use to power space science.

A CubeSat, as you might be able to guess, is a satellite made up of a single one litre cube. However, much like Ikea furniture, multiple CubeSats can be bolted together to suit your needs.

Their main advantage* comes from the fact that by standardising the weight and size of the satellite, loads of them can be crammed into one rocket, which makes them cheap. The satellite itself costs about $7,000. The price of getting your satellite on a rocket varies, but the total cost usually comes in at around $40,000.

As a result of this low cost, CubeSats are the bread and butter of Space Programs of nations you wouldn’t really guess had Space Programs. Estonia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Hungary, Romania and Switzerland all proudly claim their 1 litre of outer space in the shape of CubeSats, with Finland and Poland planning on joining them later this year.

Cramming lots of satellites onto one launch vehicle can occasionally have disadvantages. If a rocket should explode, for instance, then a whole lot of wannabe satellite operators get upset at the same time. 14 separate satellites produced by US universities all got blown up in a single launch failure in 2006.

For a cheaper but somewhat less glamorous launch, you can also get your CubeSat chucked out the back of the International Space Station. I particularly like this launch method because it looks like how the Millennium Falcon evaded the star destroyers in A New Hope.

"CubeSats launched by ISS Expedition 33" by NASA - http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/crew-33/html/iss033e009286.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CubeSats_launched_by_ISS_Expedition_33.jpg#/media/File:CubeSats_launched_by_ISS_Expedition_33.jpg

“CubeSats launched by ISS Expedition 33” by NASA Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Even cheaper (but not yet proven) are TubeSats, produced by InterOrbital, a private company who for $8,000 will give you a circuit board and launch on their own rocket system. This is ostensibly like having a Raspberry Pi IN SPAAAACCEE. I can’t quite explain why owning a satellite fills me with such a deep thrill, and I’m not even sure what instruments I’d put on board, but I know I want one.  Fortunately for me, the cost of moving house and buying mundane surface-bound flat-pack products have prevented me from piling in on the opportunity to do so. For now…


*Arguably their second main advantage, with their first main advantage being that they look like a wee little version of the Borg Cube, which is kinda cool.

References and Links

Matt Allinson is an Editorial Co-Ordinator and a PhD Thesis Avoider. He gets a deep and meaningful sense of fulfilment from owning a barometer, so can only begin to dream of how much pointless yet satisfying data he could gather from owning a satellite. He tweets @mattallinson


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