A CubeSat crams the advanced hardware of enormous satellites into a box slightly larger than a Rubik’s Cube. The satellites’ small size and light weight have made it cheaper than ever to launch spacecraft into orbit. Here are three citizen-led CubeSats paving an ever-more-accessible path off planet Earth.
In 2011, after watching NASA’s final space shuttle launch, astronomy-app developer Tim DeBenedictis decided to crowdfund SkyCube with the help of his company, Southern Stars. The 2.9-pound CubeSat launched to the International Space Station on January 9, 2014, and astronauts deployed it February 28. Backers can use an app called Satellite Safari to take photos and tweet from orbit. After its 90-day mission, SkyCube will inflate a polyethylene balloon, drag itself into the atmosphere, and burn up.
Time: About 1 year
South Korean artist Hojun Song used off-the-shelf parts to build his spacecraft, OSSI-1. Like other newcomers to CubeSats, however, he had to navigate a maze of bureaucracy designed for national space programs (rather than private individuals) to launch it. On April 19, 2013, after years of work, his craft finally flew aboard a Russian Soyuz 2-1b rocket. OSSI-1 successfully entered orbit, but due to financial constraints, Song has yet to team up with a company that can establish contact with the spacecraft.
Time: 5 years
Why launch one satellite when you can send up dozens? That’s the idea behind KickSat, a spacecraft designed to release 104 postage stamp–size satellites into low-Earth orbit on March 30 (at press time). Each tiny satellite, called a Sprite, has a microcontroller, solar cells, and a radio that allows it to transmit a small amount of data. Michael Johnson, a former KickSat team member, has since made an even thinner and lighter version of Sprites, called Scouts, that he hopes to launch to the moon in 2015.
Time: 7 years
Cost: About $75,000
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.
Correction (5/11/2014, 6:20pm ET): The original story misstated the number of Sprites aboard KickSat; there are 104, not 120. The cost of the project was also misstated as $375,000; the team paid roughly $75,000 for materials and did not have to pay for labor or launch costs. We regret the errors.