NASA Podcasts

NASA EDGE: CubeSat Launch Initiative
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The CubeSat Launch Initiative
- Garrett Skrobot
- Jordi Puig-Suari
- Brian Tubb
- Anne Sweet
- Diane DeTroye
- David Pierce


ANNOUNCER: CubeSats, small, inexpensive, fully functional satellites that actually fly in space. How are students getting involved in this exciting program? How is NASA helping deploy these tiny, technological experiments? Find out on NASA EDGE!


CHRIS: Hey, here’s the interview I did with Garrett on CubeSats.

BLAIR: Oh, the satellites, where you build your own satellites?

CHRIS: Yeah, the interview you didn’t come to.

BLAIR: Was that on the schedule?

CHRIS: It’s been a couple months, at least.

BLAIR: All right. I’ll check…

CHRIS: I tell you what, check the schedule. We’ve got Cal Poly in a couple of days.

BLAIR: I’ll be there. I’ll be ready for Cal Poly. Trust me.

CHRIS: All right.

BLAIR: We’ll get this right. It’s CubeSat. This is good.

CHRIS: All right.

CHRIS: So Garrett, what made you want to get into this whole CubeSat business? You’re launching some pretty expensive payloads down at Kennedy. Why would you want to put some of these smaller CubeSats on with the primary payloads?

GARRETT: You know that NASA is very big on these STEM activities, our Science Technologys, Engineering, and Mathmatics.

CHRIS: Right.

GARRETT: And also it is training our current workforce and our new workforce for the future. Since ’07, there are several success stories of these students that working on these CubeSats have gone into the industry, working with new industry partners or actually coming to NASA and working for NASA now.

CHRIS: You call this program the ELaNA program?

GARRETT: Yeah, Educational Launch of NanoSatellite. It got its name back in the beginning because our key is education, so you have the Cube Sat launch initiative. That’s where we make the selections. The priority list comes to me. I pick the list up and say, oh, who can I go fly on. I try to go find matches for these vehicles and once I get a complement of payloads we create the ELaNa missions. Right now we’re at ELaNa 7 on our mission manifest list.

CHRIS: How many of these CubeSats can you put on a launch vehicle at one time?

GARRETT: It all depends on which vehicle it is.

CHRIS: Okay.

GARRETT: On a Taurus XL, we were able to put one peapod. Now a peapod will how 3U of space or configuration. That could be three 1Us or one 3U CubeSat size or a configuration of those. On other vehicles like an Atlas 5, we could put 8 peapods on that vehicle.

CHRIS: Oh wow.

GARRETT: On Delta 2, we were able to put 3 peapods. It just depends on what vehicle it is, the space allocated to us, and the amount of mass of the performance leftover from the primary.

CHRIS: For the students, they’re getting experience in building a satellite from the operations side but also they’re learning new Science. But from your side, what are you getting out of it?

GARRETT: Well, part of the project or program is for the data that is collected from these spacecraft, NASA gets this information. So when we put one of these spacecraft up on orbit and its studying space weather, NASA gets this data back. We can identify it and we can analyze it and say this is some pretty good stuff. We want to take a bigger spacecraft and go do that region or not. Or we can take a look at new technologies, like we can fly a new processor chip. Put it on orbit. See how fast it really does work on orbit and then take that chip and go put it in a big spacecraft.

CHRIS: If I’m a university and I want to test a piece of material in space, they have to go through all the protocols that is necessary for that piece of material to fly into space though, right?


CHRIS: Okay.

GARRETT: They have to meet the same requirements as the primary spacecraft. Actually, it’s a little bit stricter because we have to ensure that the Cube Sat and the peapod doesn't stop the carrier, will not cause any harm to the primary spacecraft or the launch vehicle, itself.

CHRIS: So what is an example of a pretty exciting experiment that was done using a CubeSat?

GARRETT: RAX 2. It flew on a MPP Mission. It was able to detect some space weather activity and for the first time measure it from space.


GARRETT: We’ve measured it from the ground but they’ve actually measured it from space. Another one, CXBN has a sensor on it that is measuring an energy region in space that NASA has never studied before. These are very small, first of their kind and there are problems with these. You get up there. You experience a problem. That’s what the whole idea is of these things. You learn from these things. There’s a CXBN 2 probably that’s going to come down the pike that says, hey, we’re going to make it better; better testing. RAX 3, do we expect to see that one day? Probably so but what we’re also seeing is they’re taking the technology from these small guys, these 3U’s, 1U’s and they are building bigger spacecraft because now they’ve got the technology demonstrated to go and put bigger sensors on because now they know how to measure those particular regions.

BLAIR: According to all the websites on the Internet, it really is possible that I could build and fly my own satellite. When we head out to Cal Poly, Franklin and Chris can get some interviews and I can do a little industrial research to help with my design. If I come up with a brilliant presentation, I could actually become a real player in the satellite community.

BLAIR: We’re here at Cal Poly at the CubeSat department talking about satellites. When you talk about satellites, it’s exciting. But when you talk about the program that allows students and perhaps podcasters build their own satellites, then you get really interested. Of course, I came up with some great ideas and I thought what better thing to do than to talk to these students and get their input on making my own satellite. They were incredibly open minded and helpful in sharing their designs. In fact, some of them actually dared me to use their designs. With some hard work and possibly some correspondence courses on engineering, I hope to make BlairSat a household name. Well, maybe not a household name, maybe an institutional name… academic institution.

CHRIS: So Jordi, how did Cal Poly get in the CubeSat business?

JORDI: There was a need for students to train in satellite development by building satellites. At the time, they we’re building bigger spacecraft that took a long time to develop. They were very complicated and expensive. It would take longer to do the spacecraft project than the time the students spent in school. We were trying to find a way for students to be involved in the entire life cycle of a project. So, they would start with a design, build it.

CHRIS: Right.

JORDI: …launch it and operate it in space, hopefully within about two years. One of the things we decided was a way to accomplish that was to go with smaller, less complex spacecraft that the students, if you want to say, couldn’t get themselves into so much trouble.

[Chris laughing]

JORDI: So, what we decided to do is to start with a PicoSAT which is satellite that is less than 1 kilogram.

CHRIS: Okay.

JORDI: That made it small, simple. And then what we did was say that we also need to make it easier to launch, so we need a way of convincing launch providers that we are a safe alternative or a safe proposition for their flights.

CHRIS: Right.

JORDI: So, what we decided to do was put them inside a box. That’s when we designed the peapod.

CHRIS: This is a peapod. This was your design?

JORDI: Yes. We can open it and see that it’s basically just a jack-in-the-box. When it reaches space, the door flings open and then there is a spring inside that pushes the satellites out.

CHRIS: Gotcha.

JORDI: It’s very simple but it’s a protective shell in case something goes wrong with the satellite because a lot of times people will say, well, it’s a student’s spacecraft. Are they following the same quality requirements as the other spacecraft? So we added a layer of security for the launch provider. That’s kind of the idea and how it started. There was not a lot of funding.

CHRIS: Right.

JORDI: There was not a lot of interest because there was very little you could do with this spacecraft. But, for us, if you could build a Sputnik, that was enough because the training is what we cared about.

CHRIS: So, you’re building a Sputnik inside of a peapod.

JORDI: Um hmm.

CHRIS: And you could actually launch multiple Sputniks into space.

JORDI: Yes. Then, the other thing with it, with the standard is a lot of universities could work together because everybody had the same problems. Initially, about a dozen universities around the world decided, yeah, this sounds interesting. We’re going to try to do it. That was the initial spark.

CHRIS: And the great thing about the CubeSat program is that its sort of the Getaway Special of the gas canisters back during the Shuttle days that I was a part of as a student. Where when I graduated, the Getaway Special wasn’t finished yet, where as with this CubeSat, it could actually go into an engineering program, design, work on this and fly hopefully by the time I graduate.

JORDI: And we got a lot of the lessons from the Getaway Special because it was another way of having this compartment where the payloads go inside, very protective of the Shuttle, and then the students build their experiments inside. In some ways, it’s a similar concept, it’s just full flyer and much smaller.

CHRIS: I understand when you first started out you were working with international partners for using launch vehicles?

JORDI: Yes, initially it was difficult to get launches in the United States at reasonable prices. We did our first few launches in Russia and it actually was a very valuable experience because it was the first time we put them in space. We proved the concept. We showed people that it could work. Very quickly, people in the U.S. decided they would be interested and started working on it. In fact, NASA was one of the first U.S. government developers. They lost the shuttle because of the accident and they need to do some experiments and they said maybe we can do them in a CubeSat. In fact, that became GeneSat which became the first CubeSat launched in the United States and it flew in an Air Force mission. But that was the spark that got things going in the United States.

CHRIS: And now you have a partnership with NASA.


CHRIS: Went through the CubeSat initiative through the ELaNa program.

JORDI: Yep. That was kind of the next step. We did a few NASA missions and then the Kennedy Center folks decided this was an interesting, educational program. It’s basically a way for NASA to sponsor launches for a large number of universities on NASA flights. We’ve put a number of CubeSats in orbit, from a number of universities in the United States. The waiting list is really long and the launches keep coming. It’s a great partnership for education.

CHRIS: Now, you’ve flown several CubeSats already in space.


CHRIS: This is an example of…

JORDI: Yes, this is a model CP6.

CHRIS: Take us through the process from start to finish. How do you get started?

JORDI: Most of the time we’ll have a sponsor that has a mission requirement. So somebody in this spacecraft in particular we had a company that wanted to fly a component. What this team does is at that point go into a design process where we start first seeing if we can do it. Can this be done on a CubeSat? Then, designing what that CubeSat would look like. Our students are very hands on, our motive is “learn by doing.” They try to do as much of the satellite as possible. We’ll design the electronics. We’ll design the software. We’ll design the structure. Then we go into this intense process of prototyping and testing, and making sure everything works. It never works the first time. Eventually, we come up with a system we like, that we feel is reliable, and then we go into what we call flight hardware development. We start to build things that have to be at flight level quality. At that point, we put that satellite together. We put it through environmental testing and then it goes to fly. NASA is a great example. We’ll apply for a launch with ELaNa. We’ll get a date and then we start setting up a schedule to have a flight satellite ready for that time.

CHRIS: Also, by working with NASA, your students are getting good hands on experience in what it’s like to go through a lot of the paperwork, a lot of the reviews, preliminary design reviews, critical design reviews.

JORDI: NASA has done an amazing job at putting the students through that very rigorous quality process. NASA is extremely helpful. They understand this is a student group that’s doing this work but they don’t give them any slack.

CHRIS: Right.

JORDI: At the same time, they have to get to that level of quality but they are there to help. And that’s a really helpful and powerful incentive for the students. They’re not doing paperwork because I tell them. They’re doing paperwork because NASA is telling them. That really has a different tone.

CHRIS: Now they have that experience. It’s on their resumé. They’ve built a satellite.

JORDI: Yep. They did build a satellite and the students will take one of the prototypes to their interviews and say this is what I did when I was in school. It’s a very powerful statement. Not only are our students getting value added but because of the large number of universities that are now able to do this, the country is getting value out of it. The quality of the students coming out of the universities has gone up so much that I was told by industry, somebody that interviews a lot of students, that for him it’s almost a requirement. If you want to work for my company building satellites, I want you to have built a satellite in school. It’s also beyond the space industry. We have students that work for a computer companies. They go work on phones or work at a biomedical company but the systems integration and the hands on experience they receive is valuable everywhere. It’s a very powerful educational multiplier if you want to call it that.

FRANKLIN: Brian, here at Cal Poly you became a manager as an undergrad student in the CubeSat program. Tell me a little bit about it.

BRIAN: I started back in my sophomore year. I worked for about a year and a half. I ended up falling naturally into the role of trying to coordinate and trying to keep people moving in the correct direction. Then, I started working up and eventually I filled the role of trying to manage everyone in the lab.

FRANKLIN: You said trying.

BRIAN: Trying. Sometimes they don’t listen. It’s like herding cats sometimes.

[Franklin laughing]


BRIAN: That’s half the fun. It’s a learning experience. And that is something we’ll always have to remember. I’m not a dictator. People want to be here. I don’t threaten things. I don’t say I get my way and stomp my feet. It’s a collaborative process between everyone and I just happen to be filling one role.

FRANKLIN: It seems like you have a really passionate group of students that work with you. They have their classes but they pile into your CubeSat Lab like we’re getting paid for it. They are so into their work. I kind of see the passion that’s in them.

BRIAN: They see the passion a lot from the older students, the ones that have been here a long time. We use to take about nine months to educate the people. When they first came into the lab, they felt like they’d just sit there and do nothing, saying why do I need to be here? That’s the same mentality that happens when you’re in a class. You’re sitting there saying why do I need to learn algebra. You say this has no application to the real world. When you have someone actually show you right off the bat that actually gets them excited. When we put in the effort to just give them a little bit of a taste, they get hungry. They love to come back for more knowledge, learning. And that’s ultimately what engineering is about, is that continual search for accomplishing bigger and greater things.

FRANKLIN: How many CubeSats have you worked on that have actually flown?

BRIAN: I have two CubeSats in orbit right now. One is CP5 which is a de-orbiting sail. I came in about midway through the project, helped troubleshoot a lot of the C and DH [Communications and Data Handling], the radio problems that were plaguing our previous satellites. I also worked with USC on NES which is a larger satellite and much more complicated. I worked primarily on their 2.4-gigahertz radio communications.

FRANKLIN: When you say a larger satellite, it’s not just one cube, it’s two cubes or three cubes?

BRIAN: This was actually a 3U, so large from my perspective.

FRANKLIN: Okay. Most of the cubes that you work here on at Cal Poly are what we call 1U?

BRIAN: Yes. They’re just bases of units. The first standard is pretty much the smallest you can go, 1U. We try to show what we can do with the 1U. Many other universities try to get up and run with a 3U. That’s really tough. You can get into a lot of problems trying to develop a full 3-axis attitude determination control systems with deployables. A lot of people have one thing fail and their entire system fails. That leads to a lot of problems. We went through a much more iterated process. We’re okay with launching smaller satellites because we learned so much more from having our satellites in orbit, not just continuing to work on them in development hell.

FRANKLIN: Tell me a little bit about the large integration part of the CubeSat program here at Cal Poly.

BRIAN: I’m not quite as involved. I see it from a somewhat inside, somewhat outside perspective. It’s an incredibly exciting experience. We have NASA engineers coming on campus, working directly with the students, hanging out with the students, going out and getting food with them, but also working and teaching them some of the steps in the process because usually you’re insulated at the universities. You get to see these NASA engineers come in and say hey, this is how you work on it in our industry. Some of which we try to copy. We try to use their vast knowledge. Sometimes we say we’re not going to be quite as thorough because it’s going to get in the way of some of the really advanced development. We’re just not ready for that yet.

FRANKLIN: Um hmm. You’ve actually mirrored some of the stuff that NASA has done like in your Clean Room. Because when the NASA engineers come in they’re actually side by side in the Clean Room.

BRIAN: Yeah. Most teams will integrate into the peapod, the deployment mechanism. We will do the same. We just have to walk it over, other teams will have to ship it over or they’ll come over themselves but every team will meet up with our CubeSat team, the launch integration side. They’ll meet NASA. They’ll go through the steps. Have you met all of the specifications necessary? They will all suit up. They will go in the Clean Room, make sure everything is wiped down and then they will be the last people to touch their satellite when they integrate it into the peapod. It’s an amazing experience. You go from the very beginning concepts to being pretty much the last person that ever touches it, which is amazing and you don’t get anywhere else.

BLAIR: Hello, I’m Blair, president and CEO of BlairSat Industries. I’m here to propose a CubeSat. [sighs] Hello, I’m…

CHRIS: Hey, man. What’s going on?

BLAIR: Not much. Hey, guys.

FRANKLIN: What’s happening?

BLAIR: Actually, I’m getting ready for my big CubeSat ELaNa presentation.

CHRIS: I didn’t see that on the schedule.

BLAIR: Uh, you will see it this afternoon.

[Franklin laughing]

FRANKLIN: Okay. Well, we were on our way back to the studio and since we stopped by we wish you luck.

BLAIR: I appreciate that because a lot went into this presentation. I mean I actually went out and did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people, got good signs. I followed all the rules. I’m going to go out there and make an amazing presentation. And if successful, NASA EDGE, probably within a month, will be flying their very own satellite.

CHRIS: All right.

FRANKLIN: Go out there and break a leg.

BLAIR: Yes, I’ll do that.

FRANKLIN: All right, buddy.

BLAIR: Thanks, guys.


BLAIR: Star, smile, strong.

CHRIS: What do you think?

FRANKLIN: He’ll never make it.

BLAIR: Hello. My name is Blair. I’m the co-host for NASA EDGE and the CEO of BlairSat Industries and I’m here to propose a satellite for your consideration for the EL-A-Na program.

GARRETT: Oh, it should be ELaNa program.

BLAIR: ELaNa program.

GARRETT: Thank you.

BLAIR: Have you ever found yourself using your GPS or using your cell phone and sometimes getting sketchy data on your GPS or a poor signal on your cell phone and wondered, wow, am I using this wrong or am I smack dab in the middle of a solar event? Well, now you don’t have to worry. With the satellite I’m proposing, you will get direct contact from a satellite to determine whether or not your poor performance of a GPS or cell phone is user related or solar storm related.


BLAIR: Here, we have MagnetosStar 1. When deployed, the communications array…

[Group laughing]

BLAIR: …deploys so that a signal can be perpetually sent to your cell phone indicating that there’s no magnetospherence at all taking place. If there was a solar event, and this is taken out of commission, you will no longer receive the signal and you will know that even though I’m lost, it’s okay because it’s not really my error. It’s really the result of some solar activity up in the magnetosphere.


BLAIR: So, who out there wants to add MagnetosStar 1 to their portfolio for ELaNa?

ANNE: I guess I have some concerns. We have requirements for CubeSats. They have to meet a certain size and weight. That looks bigger than what a CubeSat should be.

BLAIR: Well, actually I’m glad you brought that up because this is scaled for demonstration.

DIANE: Have you had an external group that’s looked at that to say, yeah, this is meritorious and this is something that’s going to be useful?

BLAIR: By external, do you mean apart from family?

DAVID: Blair, how about the Science? Is the Science tied to NASA’s strategic goals for Heliophysics?

BLAIR: I’m in constant communication with the Heliophysics group but I haven’t actually gotten feedback. It’s not a loop yet. It’s a one-way communication.

DAVID: If you go and look at some of the strategic goals that NASA’s Science Goals put out, you might see where they have open questions that they want to have answered.


DAVID: Then that can help you frame your Science questions better for your mission.

GARRETT: Don’t we already have spacecraft on orbit that measures that solar event for us?

DAVID: Yes, we do.

GARRETT: Why do we want to go ahead and put up another spacecraft? Does it have educational benefit, Diane?

DIANE: That was the question I was going to ask you, Blair. You said, this is the ELaNa program, the first “E” is Education. One of the important aspects of that is the student involvement. How are students a part of this?

BLAIR: Uh, I’ve asked some students if they’d be interested in working on it. Um, they have some pretty strict requirements actually that I haven’t been able to meet.

DIANE: One of the things that is important for NASA is the development of the next generation workforce. So, we’re looking at something that helps them gain the skills that would allow them to work with and for NASA, whether it’s as civil servants, wheter it’s contractors, whether it’s scientists out at the universities.

BLAIR: So, you’re suggesting getting them to actually participate in building and actually making sure MagnetoStar 1 actually functions properly.

DIANE: Absolutely.

BLAIR: Yeah, I would love that actually.

DAVID: Is there any new design or new technology that you plan on testing as part of your BlairSat?

BLAIR: Uh, It’s really all new to me.

GARRETT: Another thing, Blair, that we also consider when we evaluate proposals is schedule. When will your flight article be ready to fly because that determines if there is a launch available if you get selected, and also your funding profile. Are you completely funded to go forward and create this satellite to completeness?

BLAIR: I’m willing to receive funding.

DAVID: Well Blair, I think it’s really ingenious on your part that you’ve gone from a design to a basic idea of a prototype.

BLAIR: This is... look at it. It went from here to here like that. I was in the workshop in my garage putting this together. I mean, how often to you get this? Not very… it takes real creativity and ingenuity to get this far. I believe with student help I can get some funding and the commitments and maybe get this thing launched which would be very important for EL-A-Na.


BLAIR: ELaNa, yes.

BLAIR: Wow, that was awesome. I can’t imagine a presentation going any better than that. You could tell they loved my CubeSat. It looks like the sky’s the limit here. It’s about time to move to mass production. It looks like NASA EDGE is finally on the map and I’m finally going to get the respect and the scientific community I deserve.

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