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What are SmallSats and CubeSats?

What are SmallSats?

The size and cost of spacecraft vary depending on the application; some you can hold in your hand while others like Hubble are as big as a school bus.  Small spacecraft (SmallSats) focus on spacecraft with a mass less than 180 kilograms and about the size of a large kitchen fridge.  Even with small spacecraft, there is a large variety of size and mass that can be differentiated.

Minisatellite, 100-180 kilograms

Microsatellite, 10-100 kilograms

Nanosatellite, 1-10 kilograms

Picosatellite, 0.01-1 kilograms

Femtosatellite, 0.001-0.01 kilograms

Ames SmallSat mission timeline begins with the launch of Pioneer 10 and 11 launched March 1972 and April 1973, respectively.  These missions were trail blazers for the later Voyager 1 & 2 missions.

Ames’ present SmallSat program has focused on lunar exploration with Lunar Prospector launched in January 1998 followed by LCROSS in June 2009 and more recently LADEE in September 2013.

What are CubeSats?

CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor.  The standard CubeSat size uses a “one unit” or “1U” measuring 10x10x10 cms and is extendable to larger sizes; 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U.  Originally developed in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) and Stanford University to provide a platform for education and space exploration.  The development of CubeSats has advanced into its own industry with government, industry and academia collaborating for ever increasing capabilities.  CubeSats now provide a cost effective platform for science investigations, new technology demonstrations and advanced mission concepts using constellations, swarms disaggregated systems.

Diagram comparing sizes of CubeSats
CubeSats are a class of nano- and microsatellites that use a standard size and form factor.

NASA Ames launched its first CubeSat, GeneSat, in December 2006.  Since then Ames has launched 16 CubeSat spacecraft varying in size from 1U to 3U with an additional 12 CubeSats in development or awaiting launch. Included in the list of CubeSat launches planned is the first true swarm, Edison Demonstration of Small Networks (EDSN), the student let TechEdSat-4, and Agency’s first 6U, EcAMSAT.