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Space Becomes Affordable If Your Spacecraft Is 3 Centimetres Small

Arizona State University’s “SunCubes” are under 100g, making a launch affordable even for hobbyists.

by Victoria Turk
Apr 7 2016, 2:30pm

Image: SunCube design specs document

As technology advances, it often gets smaller. These darling little teensy-tiny baby satellites are following the miniaturisation trend, with the aim of making space exploration affordable even to hobbyists.

A team from Arizona State University led by Jekan Thanga has developed the "SunCube," a type of femtosatellite (a satellite under 100g) that starts at just 3cm across but is still capable of carrying instruments such as a camera. On Thursday, they published a set of standards for the satellites that they hope will encourage people to design and fly their own.

"The purpose is to utilize the latest in miniaturized electronics, sensors and actuators towards developing truly affordable, fully functioning spacecraft that can be rapidly launch into space in a matter of month," the researchers write in their paper. "By reducing the launch costs, it is hoped a wider community of educators, researchers and hobbyists can develop their own spacecraft."

Space is expensive, and while small CubeSats—which are made of multiples of 10 cm cubes—have taken off amid claims of democratising exploration beyond Earth, the cost of assembling and launching one are still beyond most individuals' and low-level organisations' budgets as launching one costs in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

According to the researchers, a SunCube satellite's parts cost in the hundreds of dollars, and a launch to the ISS would start at $1,000, with a mission to low-Earth orbit $3,000. They detail two models: one is a diddy 3 cm cube, and the other is equivalent to three of the mini cubes on top of each other at 9 cm total length.

In a video introducing the SubCube design specs, Thanga described the SunCube as "the prototype of a fully-functioning spacecraft." "Onboard you have cameras, you have power systems, you have computers, you have a fully-functioning radio that you can launch into lower-Earth orbit."

The femtosats would be deployed by a CubeSat unit, which could release up to 27 at a time.

Like CubeSats, one of the main ideas behind the even smaller satellites is the potential to use many of the devices in collaboration—ASU gives the example of a "swarm" of femtosats examining a damaged spacecraft.

Thanga plans to get a prototype in space next year. If the SunCube lives up to its creators' hopes, the future could see thousands of tiny new satellites buzzing around in LEO—and thousands more reasons to address our space debris problem.