Cubesats in 2020: Not Toys Anymore
An analysis by Olga Ovchinnikova
Readiness for interplanetary missions, shift to commercial use and growing environmental consciousness. These are some of the interim results of twenty-year development of tiny low-cost satellites, CubeSats, which have been framed at the 5th IAA Conference on University Satellite Missions and CubeSat Workshop held in Rome on January 28-31, 2020.
CubeSats, miniature satellites made of cubic units, were born in the university environment in 1999. Over the two decades this satellite class has made quite a voyage in its development and as a noticeable trend in space research, has attracted close attention of the specialists. So, in the 2010s the discussion on the development of miniature spacecrafts has been officially included in the agenda of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).
Among the key CubeSat-oriented activities sponsored by the IAA there is a series of biannual conferences on university satellite missions organized in Rome by the Group of Astrodynamics for the Use of Space Systems (G.A.U.S.S. Srl) supported by ESA and American Astronautical Society. This year the event brought together the CubeSat community for the fifth time. Hosted at Rospigliosi palace in the center of Rome, the conference united more than 150 specialists from research organizations, universities, space agencies and companies from about thirty countries.
The fifth edition of the conference marked the decade-long history of this event which has been developing alongside the evolution of the whole CubeSat field. Formerly hardly imaginable possibilities of CubeSats such as interplanetary exploration are becoming reality nowadays and gaining special interest of the CubeSat community, which reflected in the 2020 conference motto, “Getting closer to Mars”.
Conference at a glance
The conference started with an opening ceremony including greetings of Filippo Graziani, Professor of Astrodynamics, IAA Member and Trustee and the President of G.A.U.S.S. company (La Sapienza university spin-off specialized in design and realization of microsatellites) and the opening lecture by Jean-Michel Contant, the IAA’s Secretary General. They emphasized the exciting possibilities for international cooperation that CubeSats provide both for space exploration and for young specialists all over the world as an affordable and relatively easy-to-build instrument. The academicians also noted the growing interest of space agencies, industry and the military to this young class of satellites.
In his speech, Filippo Graziani commented: “Ten years ago, in 2011, when we organized the 1st IAA Conference on University Missions & Cubesat Workshop, the satellite of this type had just been invented by Professor Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari and nobody could imagine how far it would go. But while Cubesats have attracted university students and teachers due to their accessibility and have become an exciting way to gain experience, for long time they were considered “students toys”: that’s the reason why in 2013 the Conference cover was represented by two Roman gladiators playing dice with Cubesats. Nobody could believe in their development and their possibilities. However the results obtained by universities opened the doors to the commercial use of CubeSats.”
Jean-Michel Contant noted some shifts in the applications of CubeSats: “We’ve been witnessing significant changes in the development of this field since 2011. Today CubeSats are ready for some ‘big’ scientific challenges, both in the outer space and for the needs of our planet. While ecological issues, such as climate change, ice melting etc. are becoming more and more noticeable, CubeSats are assuming a new role as a very affordable tool for disaster management. Besides, the common configuration of CubeSat missions, formation, allows to work on some problems which are hard to solve for single satellites.”
The same day the 2019 IAA Engineering Sciences Award was given to Chantal Cappelletti, assistant professor at University of Nottingham, G.A.U.S.S. Srl co-founder and IAA-Member. She noticed that the development of CubeSats is leading to the democratization of space and even to the emergence of new space economy. She also added: “The number of participants of CubeSat field keeps growing, and thanks to this satellite class we see more young people doing space research. The interest of “big” players increase investments which make CubeSats more powerful. For instance the quality of images provided by CubeSats has grown a lot in recent years, and now we get near real-time high-resolution visual data.”
The event proceeded with 80 oral presentations distributed in seven technical sessions alternated with 15 invited lectures by distinguished speakers belonging to the CubeSat community. The experts presented the most recent advances on key aspects of CubeSat development such as constellation and formation flying, scientific applications of CubeSats, space debris problem, CubeSat systems and mission design as well as LEO and interplanetary CubeSat missions.
The talks also showed a broad variety of applications of CubeSats, among which now there are space research, terrestrial disaster management and ecology studies, agriculture, biomedicine, urbanization research, intelligence activities, and many others.
CubeSat trends 2020
The ‘interplanetary’ thread running through the conference touched on the exploration of Mars, its moon Phobos and other celestial bodies, while for the moment the significant attention of the researchers seems to be attracted to the Moon. The Moon-related opportunities for satellite missions were in the spotlight of the talk by Amalia Finzi, professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan and one of the legends of the Italian space research, while a number of invited lectures emphasized the role of the Moon in terms of attitude control for CubeSat missions.
The new state of things in CubeSat field brings some brand new challenges and views on the development of the satellites. Among some trends the experts pointed out the raising ‘environmental’ awareness of CubeSat building, i.e. the attention to the satellite disposal, as the LEO environment is getting increasingly cluttered. As Marina Ruggieri, full professor at Tor Vergata University of Rome, noted in the invited lecture, the CubeSat developers “need to be not only pioneers, but conscious pioneers.” Indeed the problem of CubeSat post-mission deorbiting and disposal that ran all through the sessions seems to become an essential part of CubeSat development.
Other noticeable changes are related to the ongoing standardization of CubeSats. As they are getting more industry-oriented, the whole process of satellite development is becoming more and more conventional in technical terms. This trend evidences the maturing of the CubeSat field, the experts said.
Kathleen C. Howell, professor at Purdue University and IAA Member commented: “The whole paradigm is changing the way we do science. It is changing the instruments, the control systems as well as the post processes and enabling other things, for instance the infrastructure concepts. Standardization has also made a huge change. Quantum technologies applied in recent years influence the navigation and already have a huge impact on the whole domain. So now we have a completely new picture of power, telecom, attitude control, autonomy, lifetime and environment conditions of CubeSats.” Prof. Howell also emphasized that small projects lead to direct collaboration between different companies and universities which also encourages economic and cultural exchange.
According to the organizers, the next IAA Conference on University Satellite Missions is expected in 2022.
by Olga Ovchinnikova
(Conference Media Coverage)