About Small Satellites

Small Satellites: What? Why?

The UMN SmallSat team generally works with CubeSats, so we wanted to be able to let anyone know what exactly this piece of hardware is. There is actually a difference between the description of a SmallSat and a CubeSat, so let’s go over both of them.

What is a SmallSat? 

There are a few definitions of this but the scale of all of our work is such that any is applicable, so let’s take a look at NASA’s definition. “Small spacecraft (SmallSats) focus on spacecraft with a mass less than 180 kilograms and about the size of a large kitchen fridge.”

What is a CubeSat?

CubeSats get their name from a type of constructional unit in their design. These units are of standard dimensions 10cm x 10cm x 10cm or 1U, hence the name cube. However don’t let this imply that the full satellite must be a cube! CubeSats often range in size across 1U, 2U, 3U, and 6U. To use Imperial units, these cube units are roughly 4 inches long and are a little smaller than one quart. 

Why CubeSats?

NASA has been using a CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI). This initiative is to allow small satellites to “piggyback” on planned rockets, this allows us the chance for our research to be completed. A mission statement is also required, as per the CSLI the research must “address aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations,” the good news is we qualify! NASA’s goal with this project is to assist in creating opportunities for students, faculty, and research projects to help the United States attract STEM students worldwide. CSLI is just one such program which is funding small satellites for STEM education purposes. University Nanosatellite Program (UNP), under the US Air Force, is another, and is the funding source for one of our current missions, EXACT. The Air Force uses this as an education incentive and as a way to seek out innovative solutions to military-related problems that can be solved in space.