Bigger isn’t necessarily better—at least where satellites are concerned. Modern “CubeSat” satellites are smaller and more numerous than ever.
The CubeSat takes its name from its dimensions; it is made up of multiples of 10×10×11 centimeter cubic units. A basic CubeSat weighs roughly 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms) and looks a good deal like a portable speaker.
BACK TO THEIR ROOTS
Early satellites started out small, too. Launched in 1957, Sputnik weighed around 184 pounds (83 kilograms). America’s first satellite, Explorer I, weighed just under 31 lbs (14 kg). Then, as the desire for more sensors grew, so did the size of satellites. The first American weather satellite, TIROS I, was a hefty 270 lbs (122 kg). But recent years have seen a reversal of this trend.
Like modern cell phones, satellites have benefited from more compact and more powerful computing technology. (A 1980s cell phone was an expensive, brick-sized gadget that could only place phone calls and store a couple dozen numbers.) Satellites, too, have sprouted new cameras and sensors. Take the IPEX CubeSat developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (45 seconds into the video below); it can track features like forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and algae blooms.
THE UPSIDES OF BEING SMALL
A satellite today can be a “hitchhiker,” aboard a larger mission, as the video below mentions. Or, a CubeSat can be launched from the International Space Station.
Because they are smaller, CubeSats tend to cost less, so research organizations can deploy more of them. That means more spatial coverage for monitoring the Earth. Where researchers once relied on two or three larger satellites to keep an eye on weather over the Pacific Ocean, now, handfuls of smaller satellites can help with the job.
To learn more, watch the video below. Or read more here.