New, cheaper satellites allow student space research

Space may be the final frontier, but it’s no longer a frontier off limits to college students.

“CubeSat,” a program developed at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University, now offers students and companies the chance to build and launch tiny cube-shaped satellites to conduct research in low-orbit space above the Earth’s atmosphere.

At about 2 pounds and less than 4 inches per side, CubeSat satellites are small and far cheaper than traditional commercial satellites. While building and launching a conventional satellite starts at around $250 million, the cost for a CubeSat is closer to $80,000.

In an interview with CNet News, CubeSat project director and Stanford aeronautics professor Bob Twiggs called CubeSat satellites the spaceflight counterpart to the Apple II, the first computer affordable enough to be accessible to a wide population.

“The ordinary person can get something into space,” Twiggs said. “We don’t know what the ultimate use is, but look what happened to the Internet.”

Six CubeSats are already in low-orbit, and three more will be launched from a site in northern Russia on Sept. 30. Past CubeSat satellites have been launched from missile silos on rockets that were originally designed for nuclear warheads.

The technology is giving many students their first hands-on experience in satellite technology, an area previously explored only through textbooks. At the University of Tokyo, a solar-powered CubeSat sends down compressed digital photos taken with a low-resolution camera for students to study.

CubeSats are also giving students a first-hand look at spacecraft design. The Romanian Space Agency is sponsoring a group of students at the University of Bucharest two develop three CubeSats, while Twiggs is working with students at Colombia’s Universidad Sergio Arboleda to design their own versions.

“They’ve never built [satellites] in Romania before, the same with Colombia,” Briggs said. “We’re creating a whole new generation of students really genuinely interested in space.”

Some are starting even younger. A group of students at Independence High School in San Jose, Calif., are working with one of Twiggs’ graduate students and aerospace firm Lockheed Martin on a program they have called Katysat, or “kids aren’t too young for satellites.”

The Katysat satellite will eventually be able to transmit messages between the San Jose school and another high school elsewhere in the world. The students will also learn to plot Katysat’s location, get the satellite to send signals to their counterparts at the other school and perform experiments.

Although some U.S.-based companies expressed limited interest in CubeSat, the amount of money needed for their launch is generally smaller, Twiggs said. More interest has come from Russian companies.

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