Costs are still far lower than for any large satellite, but for many schools, it’s not a small sum. And to launch their experiments into space on a rocket, they need to be a part of a space agency program. (Cupido says that, if they can, universities that build CubeSats set up some kind of partnership that eventually guarantees them a spot in space.) Not every school has the resources to participate, but this space research is still far more accessible for students now than it’s ever been in the past. Nowadays, teachers can order full CubeSat kits — containing all the components necessary to create a satellite — online from leading suppliers in the U.S.
“My generation saw the birth of the Internet. Now, today’s students are growing up where satellites are something they can do themselves,” says Jason Crusan, director for advanced exploration systems with NASA. “That’s pretty revolutionary.”
At the University of Alberta lab, Cupido wears a lab coat, a dust mask, a hairnet and gloves as he delicately handles the tiny parts that make up the interior of the Ex-Alta 1. Metal probes extend from the top of the satellite, like antennas, to measure electron density.
The probes, along with an onboard magnetometer, will study and predict space weather once Ex-Alta 1 is in orbit. That’s important because space storms can disturb GPS signals and can create problems in communications between airplanes and ground control. A major storm could short out the world’s power supply. CubeSats are ideally poised for studying space storms in the lower areas of the atmosphere, which are too high for weather balloons and too low for larger satellites to survive.
“It’s an interesting region of the world [and] we should investigate it further,” says Jan Thoemel, project manager of the QB50 mission. But it will be months before the satellite will be ready for space with the launch date scheduled for February 2016. QB50 announced the CubeSats will launch from the International Space Station after being transported on rockets already making the journey.
In the meantime, about 50 students gather in a University of Alberta lab twice a week, preparing for the time when they’ll actually communicate with the orbiting spacecraft. Simulators allow them to practice determining battery levels, communicating with the satellite and analyzing mechanical vibrations and stresses on the structure.
“The satellite is essentially a robot with a radio, sensors, eyes and ears. You talk to it a couple of times a day; the rest of the time, it needs to know what to do by itself,” says Cupido. As a result, he and the students have learned a lot about how to make reliable platforms that can function on their own. Even before the satellite launches into space, the students have gained invaluable experience.
Twiggs has already seen the effects of the hands-on education on former students. One was instrumental in creating the groundbreaking Dragon spacecraft for private spaceship-maker SpaceX. Meanwhile, Skybox Imaging, a satellite company created by former students of Twiggs, was recently bought by Google for $500 million.
The Final Frontier
The next generation of CubeSat students will get their satellites into space even more efficiently, as improving technology makes launches economically and environmentally easier. DARPA, Virgin Galactic and others are working on experimental new orbital launches that use airplanes to get to the edge of space.
The satellites themselves are also becoming more robust, with parts that can withstand higher altitudes and last longer. NASA hopes to launch 11 CubeSats where they’ve never gone before, into deep space, through the maiden mission of its Space Launch System, NASA’s most powerful rocket ever. One of these satellites, the Lunar Flashlight, will study the moon’s resources with the hope that future explorers might one day exploit them for building materials, drinking water or even oxygen. Another of the 11, the BioSentinel satellite, will use yeast to determine the effect of deep-space radiation on living organisms.
“We’ve been able to see the whole growth of an industry, growth of components, and such well-educated students that they are joining the ranks of these new aerospace companies and NASA,” says NASA’s Crusan. “And now we’re actually going to go out and execute some exploration missions, using these small satellites.” Pretty impressive for an overgrown science experiment that fits in your hands.
[This article originally appeared in print as "Classroom in the Sky."]