Space exploration used to be an expensive endeavor, but this is no longer the case. Anyone with $40K can now send a satellite into orbit. Universities, research centers, and small companies now have a low-cost option that is not off-limits due to limited budgets.
This revolutionary and low-cost alternative is the cubesat. Cubesats are of a small modular design that combines standard units. This means that depending on project specifications, cubesats can be sized up as needed. They were initially created as scientific projects between Stanford and California Polytechnic more than two decades ago, but they have since become widespread; currently 872 of them orbit the earth.
Cubesats’ standard design allows companies to develop specialized delivery services. Rocket Lab in New Zealand, for instance, has created a special lightweight spacecraft called the Electron that allows cubesat projects to rideshare. Other companies such as NanoRacks or Spaceflight also provide affordable prices for cubesat launches.
To make space exploration accessible for interested scientists and scholars, major space agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) already sponsor cubesat projects of selected universities.
One promising development was recently undertaken by the CSA. It has granted 15 teams across the nation awards of between CAD$200,000 and CAD$250,000 to design and launch their own satellites. As a part of the CSA’s cubesat program, students and scientists from some of Canada’s most northern territories – from Yukon College in Whitehorse and Aurora College in Inuvik – joined forces with the University of Alberta to share ideas and resources. Each institution will design their own satellite. This partnership is called the Northern SPIRIT (Space Program for Innovative Research and Integrated Training). Francis Reid, the current student project manager of the project in Yukon, spoke with Filling Space about how he and his colleagues envision their program contributing not just to space exploration, but also to local students’ interest in and access to the STEM fields.
What is, if any, the comparative advantage of using cubesats’ sensors and imaging for environmental monitoring?
The benefit comes in the low cost to launch the cubesats. The low cost of these satellites makes it easier to set up a constellation – a group of satellites that are controlled together. GPS, for example, is a constellation that provides geographic position information. Constellations are useful as they cover a greater range when collecting data.
Do you aim to design the cubesat to also provide some data regarding the effects of climate change in the Northern Territories?
Our cubesat will be taken on a rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) and subsequently launched from there. Unfortunately, the orbit that our cubesat will be in – since it is launched from the ISS – will not be over Northern Canada. That being said, there is still a chance that we will be gathering data related to climate change, just not from the territories.
What are the future benefits of this project to further stimulate future STEM projects in Yukon?
This project will further increase the abilities to host, work on, and start STEM projects in the Yukon. During the design, build, and operation of the satellite, the students on our project team, who are mostly post-secondary, will gain the experience and skills necessary to lead other STEM projects in the future. This project will also demonstrate the viability of student-run project teams from the Yukon and hopefully inspire other Yukoners to create their own. We are planning on starting monthly space-related youth programming for the elementary-school age range, in conjunction with this project that we hope will stimulate their interest in STEM. Much of the work will be based out of a new Yukon Innovation Hub and this project will help demonstrate possibilities for that facility to be used in future STEM projects.
Cubesats are democratizing access to space. Since they were created over a decade ago, they have become commonplace, allowing the profusion of smaller organizations that advance humanity’s activities off-planet. Space is now firmly in the realm of human activity, and access to it is no longer restricted to a handful of governments and large companies. As cubesats continue to proliferate, so too will the diversity of actors off-planet.