- A standardized technology for satellites is making space missions more affordable and accessible than they have ever been before.
- These one-liter, one-kilogram “CubeSats” are often made of components that are shared among researchers. They can also can piggyback on other missions’ rockets.
- The satellites can take as little as one year to develop and can be linked into networks of space sensors. Most also fall to the surface in a relatively short time, which means they do not add to orbiting space junk.
- Universities, companies, countries and even hobbyists can afford to do serious science missions in fields ranging from atmospheric physics to microgravity experiments.
Ever since Sputnik kicked off the age of space satellites more than fifty years ago, big institutions have dominated the skies. Almost all the many thousands of satellites that have taken their place in Earth orbit were the result of huge projects funded by governments and corporations. For decades each generation of satellites has been more complicated and expensive than its predecessor, taken longer to design, and required an infrastructure of expensive launch facilities, global monitoring stations, mission specialists and research centers.
In recent years, however, improvements in electronics, solar power and other technologies have made it possible to shrink satellites dramatically. A new type of satellite, called CubeSat, drastically simplifies and standardizes the design of small spacecraft and brings costs down to less than $100,000 to develop, launch and operate a single satellite—a tiny fraction of the typical mission budget of NASA or the European Space Agency.
This article was originally published with the title Citizen Satellites.