Building CubeSat

7 Essential Steps For Building And Launching A CubeSat

If you thought building, launching, and operating nano-satellites is a proverbial walk in the park, think again...

While it is true that almost any person, institution, or entity can build and launch a nano-satellite, the process of getting one into space is a long chain of planning, more planning, submitting documentation to various organizations, more planning, and submitting more documentation to other organizations – and that is even before actual construction of the satellite can begin.

So how does the process work? There is no short answer, since every mission requires its own dedicated protocols, but in general terms, the starting point is deciding what you want your satellite to do, so let us start there.

 

Define the mission objectives

There is a close relationship between mission objectives and the final costs of construction, but assuming that money is no object, the possibilities are almost endless. However, if your little satellite is going to be launched from the International Space Station by NanoRacks, who incidentally is the only launch provider that can do so, you need to be very specific about your objectives.

The ISS falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, who has to approve the launch. To obtain approval, you have to submit your idea to the UN on a prescribed form, and below is an extract from the official application form that deals with your proposed objectives:

Objectives of the CubeSat mission

Staging of goals (minimum mission success, full mission success and secondary level objectives) and their evaluation criteria

  • Potential problems and conflicts and possible solutions to reach the above goals and explanations showing that the solutions proposed are effective
  • Desired launch and deployment date of the CubeSat
  • Specify the desired date for launch and deployment (MM/YYYY) along with the reasons.
  • Indicate the time required to develop and deliver the satellite to JAXA after being designated as a Selected Entity.

This section is the easy part, since it merely describes your intentions, and it assumes that you have done the initial research and due diligence into the viability, desirability, and motivation(s) regarding the proposed mission. Unfortunately though, a nano-satellite is not launched based on assumptions, so the next section on the application form requires some additional information, and in excruciating detail to boot:

 

Determine the CubeSat specifications

Specifications of CubeSatThe next step in the planning of a nanosatellite mission requires some very careful thinking about, since this is where the “almost” anyone comes into play.

You need to decide if you are going to build the entire satellite yourself, or if you are going to use a kit, such as the kits supplied by Pumpkin.com.

There are undisputed advantages to using a kit that includes everything you need to achieve basic functionality of your satellite, but the application process demands the following details nevertheless:

  • Indicate the specifications and the design per subsystem according to the grouping as follows:
  • Overall system: 3D view, external dimensions, mass, system block diagram and list of components, structural analysis, payload profiles, and subsystem analysis (structure, power, thermal, attitude, and communication)
  • Structure: design for primary structure, mechanisms such as deployment of solar panels and antenna, equipment layout plans, separation mechanism, and materials for primary structure
  • Thermal control: list of components and control system
  • Power: list of components, schematic of the electronics, and control system
  • Communication: list of components, frequency, and satellite ground stations
  • Data processing: list of components, CPU, data compression method, data recorder, and multiplexing schematics
  • Attitude/orbit control: list of components, attitude control methods, orbit control methods, and control accuracy
  • Payload equipment for the CubeSat mission: list of components
  • End of life procedures of the CubeSat on orbit: operations for the end of transmission, method for cutting off the battery charge lines, and for de-orbiting the satellite within 25 years (after the launch)
  • Others: existence or non-existence of hazardous materials such as toxic gas or flammable materials, and specifications of unique equipment
  • The size of protruding objects should be also indicated, if there is any.
  • Not only should the total mass of the CubeSat, but the mass distribution among the satellite subsystems and CubeSat mission payload also be indicated.

Components in the system block diagram are detailed per satellite subsystem. Based on this grouping, the subsystems will be summarized in the list of components as produced or purchased and detailed at the beginning of Error! Reference source not found. Plans for manufacturing the CubeSat. Please indicate one of the following for each item: Purchased item (Developed product), purchased item (Proven product that has space-flight performance), in-house produced item (Developed), or in-house produced item (Proven)

 

CubeSat mission:

  • Objectives of the CubeSat mission

  • Staging of goals (minimum mission success, full mission success and secondary level objectives) and their evaluation criteria

  • Potential problems and conflicts and possible solutions to reach the above goals and explanations showing that the solutions proposed are effective

 

Desired launch and deployment date of the CubeSat:

  • Specify the desired date for launch and deployment (MM/YYYY) along with the reasons.

  • Indicate the time required to develop and deliver the satellite to JAXA after being designated as a Selected Entity.

 

Testing the satellite

CubesatMany deployments of nano-satellites have failed due to a lack of adequate testing, and while some launch providers will take your money regardless of whether your satellite will work or not, the process of applying for a launch from the ISS demands full details on the test protocols applicable to your satellite. Amongst other things, the process demands the following information:

Test plan for the CubeSat with facilities to be used;

  • Indicate the plans for electric and environmental tests on each model (BBM, EM, STM, and FM).

  • For the electric tests, indicate the schedule for testing, not only for individual component tests but also for subsystem tests (including check out test for the interfaces among components), and system level tests (including End-to-End communication test) along with the preparation plan of the customized test equipment if required.

  • For the environmental tests, indicate schedule and owner of the facilities for thermal cycle test, vacuum test, thermal vacuum test, vibration test, and shock test.

Prove you can afford the satellite

Building and launching a nano-satellite is not cheap. Launch costs alone can vary from about $100 000 to more than $2 million, so you need to prove that you can afford it. To do this, you need to supply the following information: Indicate the financial plan to implement the project with material procurement cost, facility rental fees accrued for development of the CubeSat system, subsystem, and ground systems at a rough estimate.

 

License the satellite

Not all nano-satellites need to be licensed, but satellites that are designed for Earth imaging, and beaming the data back to a ground station using radio frequencies, need to be licensed according the stringent rules and regulations. Moreover, some imaging satellites need a permit from the US Departments of Defence, as well as the FAA before permission for a launch can be obtained. For a launch from the ISS in particular, the application process demands the following information that must-

  • Include a plan for obtaining a frequency license in compliance with the ITU regulations.

  • Indicate any foreseen obstacles for obtaining the license.

Other licensing information may be required by other launch providers, and full information is available from: https://www.fcc.gov/document/guidance-obtaining-licenses-small-satellites.

 

Book a launch opportunity

Congratulations! After about three years of preparation, construction, testing, and submitting documentation, you are ready to launch your nano-satellite. There are many launch providers, but since you want your launch to be from the ISS, there is only one provider you can use, and since you followed the application process prescribed by the UN, you have no other option but to use the only provider with the capability, experience, and hardware required to launch nano-satellites from the International Space Station.

SPECIAL NOTE: The required information outlined here are taken from the official application form pertaining to nano-satellite launches from the International Space Station. The information in this guide is not complete, and full particulars regarding the application process can be accessed here:

United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, Vienna International Centre, P.O. Box 500, A 1400 Vienna, Austria, [to reach the Office] no later than 31 March 2016. Please also e-mail the original e-file in MS WORD (.doc) and scanned Applicant’s Certification page as a pdf-file (.pdf) to hsti-kibocube@unoosa.org.

 

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