Birds-1 constellation wings its way after launch from the ISS.
Credit: NASA

Back in February of this year, an Indian Space Research Organization rocket deployed over a hundred miniature spacecraft into Earth orbit, the largest stream of petite spacecraft, called CubeSats, dispensed into space courtesy of a single heave-ho booster.

On July 7 a volley of five cubesats carrying amateur radio payloads — dubbed the BIRDS-1 constellation — were hurled into Earth orbit shotgun-style from the Japanese Kibo module attached to the International Space Station.

GomX-4B with GomX-4A Credit GomsSace

Then there’s an upcoming Russian liftoff of a Soyuz booster set to loft a primary payload along with over 70 hitchhiking small satellites fabricated by a diverse set of countries. That gaggle of CubeSats ready to pepper Earth orbit have different jobs, from collecting GPS radio occultation and ship tracking data and performing Earth-remote imaging tasks to shaking out attitude control and propulsion technologies.

NASA’s PhoneSat 2.5, launched in April 2014, used commercial smartphone technology for low-cost development of basic spacecraft capabilities.
Credit: NASA


Heavenly headache?

For now CubeSats’ popularity is clearly on the upswing.

First used as teaching tools and for technology demonstrations, their utility to perform more complex science duties and serve as the backbone of commercial services is gaining traction.

What remains to be seen is whether or not their proliferation adds to the heavenly headache of dealing with the escalating hazard of Earth-orbiting debris.


For more information, go to my new Scientific American story:

Sweating the Small Stuff: CubeSats Swarm Earth Orbit

By Leonard David on July 12, 2017

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