Photos: The tiny satellites powering pioneering research


Ever dreamed of putting a spacecraft into orbit? The $500m price tag of building and launching a satellite is enough to bring most such fantasies back down to earth.

Undeterred, budget spacefarers have found a way to send a craft into space. The answer is to make things very, very small.

CubeSats are tiny satellites – the smallest measuring just 10×10×10cm (1U) and with a typical weight of three pounds. That diminutive size is designed to keep launch costs to a minimum, about $100,000 in one recent case.

The affordability of launching CubeSats, relative to commercial and military satellites that can be as big as a small bus, opens the door to space research for a wider range of people.

Since the form factor was devised by US universities in the late 1990s, dozens of CubeSats have been carried into orbit to research everything from the effect of low gravity on plant cell biology to new ways of spotting dangerous space debris.

NASA runs a programme to put CubeSats into orbit, providing opportunities for small satellite payloads to be carried on upcoming rocket launches.To date, NASA has selected 114 CubeSats from 29 states and this week began accepting bids for a new round of CubeSats to be carried on upcoming rocket launches.

Here is some of the fascinating research that these tiny spacecraft are making possible.

The Flock-1 fleet of 28 nano-satellites is the largest collection of earth-imaging satellites ever launched.

The Dove sats will collect imagery of the changing planet to aid humanitarian and environmental efforts. Potential applications include monitoring deforestation and the polar ice caps, as well as gathering data to help with disaster relief and to improve agriculture yields in developing nations.

Each 3U sat is designed to take pictures of the earth's surface at a resolution of between three and five metres.

The satellites were transported to the International Space Station (ISS) by the Cygnus CRS-1 logistics spacecraft in January this year.

Here are the first pair of satellites – made by San Francisco-based Planet Labs – being launched from the ISS.

By Nick Heath

Nick Heath is a computer science student and was formerly a journalist at TechRepublic and ZDNet.