Big Thinking through Thinking Small


Getting my nerd on here by sharing a group of projects I am supporting that has me fired up following some meetings this week.  One of the biggest developments in unmanned space flight in recent years is the development and deployment of CubeSats.  A CubeSat can be considered a miniature satellite.  They mark a circular movement of technology not much different than you see in other forms of technology – that first starts small, grows massively as we expand what we want that technology to do, then miniaturizing to accomplish the same objectives.  But for the sake of getting boring let me explain it more like this:

Open your freezer  – grab a pint of ice cream – open it up – eat it – now consider that yummy nom nom goodness.  Now image your freezer is attached to a rocket, your hand is a low earth orbit, and the nom nom goodness you feel to be ‘advancing scientific knowledge’.  That’s a CubeSat.

CubeSats mainly are no bigger than 10 centimeters cubed, or 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches … and they weigh no more than a few pounds.  It used to be these things were designed as almost like toys for universities who would build them as a proof of concept; but these days the amount of technology they can pack into these little buggers is extraordinary.   Sometimes they are built just a bit larger but the same cubic like design, sometimes they are fired out in ‘flocks’ or ‘constallations’ so they can work in tandem with a bunch of other CubeSats; but basically these satellites are intended to draw in the data from experimentation like most other satellites going up.  One engineer pointed out that they are developing a solar flare detection system using tens of CubeSats as the current method of using one or two big satellites would be the same as measuring something in the ocean using only one or two bouys.

Probably the cool thing about them to the non-nerd is their deployment.  You don’t just put a block of electronics on the top of a rocket and shoot it up.  No … you have it hitch a ride.  Many CubeSats are attached onto rockets used for other purposes – like other satellites or manned flights.  One of the first tests of the next generation of manned flight rockets planned in the near future will carry a bunch of the little guys deployed at different stages.  The International Space Station has had a couple of groups of deployments from attached units as well.  The record is held by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) who earlier this year sent up a rocket and deployed 104 satellites.

Also, they aren’t as much shot out into space, but packed into spring loaded boxes – and when it comes time “pop goes the weasel”.  Like, video from ISRO deployment looks like a rocket with a whole bunch of little pieces of junk spiraling out from it like bread crumbs.   CubeSats typically don’t have much for propulsion.  Most are deployed in whatever orbit they need to be in, but if they have to move they are pushed around by pressurized gas in tiny tanks.  Sometimes they will have reaction wheels or gyroscopes to keep them from tumbling, but many CubeSats are designed to work when they are tumbling.

The big payoff of these guys is the actual ‘payoff’.  Estimates are a CubeSat can be designed, built, launched, and run to end of mission for under $250,000.  Launching alone has dropped to as little as $50k.  NASA has committed to multiple missions a year just to shoot up a bunch of those little guys in what they literally called a “Ride Share” program.  Yes that’s right, think Uber but in space.

In a meeting today, an engineer showed a picture of a circuit assembly used on a CubeSat program.  This unit had the computing capability of the entire Voyager-1, which had electrical components that were so big that they were actually used to help give mechanical support to the probe during takeoff.  As technology continues to evolve, the cost of discovery gets cheaper.  And within the boundaries of my role, I get to help us head that way.

Something that has come up a couple of times recently are questions about the new federal budget and the impact on what is going on here at work.  Specifically, I’ve been asked if I am getting laid off based on the budget proposals.  Usually that leads to political questions that lead to stupid memes & blogs with titles like “BlahBlah Just BlahBlahed To BlahBlah”.  Since there is no room on the Bear Feed for political hate (only self-hatred, sometimes replaced with self-loathing, sometimes replaced with alcohol) – let me just say this:  “JPL has so much work right now & so many projects coming our way that we can’t hire fast enough”.  So the only reason I would get fired is your standard incompetence or being a jackass – which lets face it was a much greater risk in any political climate.  There, done.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s