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What can a CubeSat do? Here are some of the coolest additions to CubeSats

CubeSats have made it easier and cheaper for almost anyone to launch into space, and some inventive minds have even taken CubeSats into whole new directions and boosted their capabilities. Their small size and scope make them especially suited for scientific experiments and observation. So, what are some of the coolest additions made for CubeSats?

LightSail: Flight by Light for CubeSats

Credit: The Planetary Society

The idea was originally envisioned by Carl Sagan in the 1970s and revived in 2015 by a popular science figure, our friend, Bill Nye. The LightSail is actually a citizen-funded project from the Planetary Society, which was also originally co-founded by Carl Sagan. LightSail 1 was launched on 20 May 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Whilst in orbit, it successfully unfurled its sails before returning to Earth on the 14th of June. An attempt to actually sail the craft in space will take place in 2018 when an identical LightSail 2 is launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. This second CubeSat is equipped with four sails that use the momentum of the sun’s rays to move like a sailing boat on the ocean and will attempt the first controlled solar sail flight to Earth’s orbit. The team hopes that this will enable the sun to replace fuel as a spacecraft propellent.

Did you know? The Planetary Society and Bill Nye were in Australia for IAC2017 — and some of our team got to meet him!

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight

Credit: NASA

Surely there’s no cooler combination than space and lasers! This proposed NASA mission concept is an exciting aspect of their upcoming Space Launch System’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) flight, which is set to launch in 2019. The project is a collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Marshall Space Flight Center — and it will be the first CubeSat to reach the Moon! A rocket will fly into deep space while carrying 13 CubeSats on it, where each satellite will be undertaking a range of different missions. The Lunar Flashlight CubeSat will be the first CubeSat to reach the Moon; where it will orbit around the Moon and use its built-in laser to scan the shadowy South Pole of the Moon to look for water ice. With the data, they hope to learn about how molecules interact on the Moon’s surface and where they come from, which will enable scientists to learn more about the Moon’s surface and origins.

Japan’s artificial star: FITSAT-1

Credit: FIT 

When Samuel Morse sent the first Morse Code message via telegraph in 1844, he probably never thought that it would be sent via space one day! That’s exactly what happened in early 2013 when the CubeSat called FITSAT-1, which was developed in the Fukuoka Institute of Technology in Japan, twinkles during its orbit around the Earth. Its’ twinkles are Morse code flashes made possible with the very cool light-emitting diodes attached to it. The message it broadcasted was: “Hi this is Niwaka Japan.” Professor Takushi Tanaka, the CubeSat’s creator says that he has no particular aims for his invention but it could potentially be used as an emergency beacon during natural disasters, as well as giving stargazers something interesting to look at.

SkyFi: Flexible sub-reflector antenna

Credit: NSL Comm

An Israeli startup, SkyFi (as known as NSL Comm) has created a breakthrough nanosatellite technology aimed at bringing internet to the entire world. It will be equipped with a hi-tech “smart” antenna that expands into a flexible sub-reflector while in space, which will lead to more precise transmissions and longevity compared to older satellites. The company foresees that 60 of these satellites, each having 1 gigabit of bandwidth, will be able to provide free internet access to every corner of the Earth!

SkyHopper space telescope

Credit: SkyHopper

What about CubeSat tech here in Australia? Well, one project coming (in part) from the University of Melbourne is a CubeSat space telescope known as SkyHopper. The idea of the SkyHopper was conceived at the University of Melbourne by four scientists, and it is currently in its’ design phase set to launch in 2021.  It will be the first ever CubeSat with a near-infrared telescope. Attaching infrared, the most powerful and sophisticated means of observation, on a small CubeSat would mean that the SkyHopper can quickly move and re-point itself in space. It’s hoped that this telescope can spot Earth-like planets, and analyse Gamma Ray Bursts — which can lead to further insight of the Universe’s formation.

Want to read more on CubeSats from around the world? Check out this link to see what’s out there — or soon will be!


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