The Ultimate Space Gift – CubeSats & Launch Slots

First off – What is a CubeSat?

Cubesats are very small satellites that are mainly used for research purposes. Each CubeSat is made up of an assembly of components that are typically 10 x 10 x 10 cubic cm. As well as the size contraints, the weight of a cubesats should not exceed 1.33 kg. They are classified under Picosatellites but often referred to as nanosats or smallsats. These are placed into orbit from the ISS or even through launch vehicles as attached payloads.

TCubesat Launch Slotshe first models were created in 1999 by the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in the Stanford University Space Systems Development Lab.

The initial aim was to provide the students with easy and reliable access to space for research. The use of CubeSats is now not confined to students alone but also to companies and organizations both private and government.

The design was proposed by Jordi Puig and Bob Twiggs and a range of unit sizes are now being developed around the world. To see some videos of current cubesat building, testing and deployment take a look at the CubeSat video website.


Being miniature forms, these can be sent into space as secondary payloads. Even though the design was devised in 1999, the first CubeSat was successfully put into orbit in 2003 on a Russian Eurokot. The number of cubesats put into space had reached 75 by the year 2012.

The high cost of launching and placing the bigger satellites was one of the reason why the need for a smaller satellite was apparent for simpler research. Such small satellites could be deployed at a time along with heavy load launcher. The purpose was for academic research and now bigger variations of CubeSat satellites with a little more larger sizes of 12 U to help serve in more complex studies and for defense research purposes.

Cubesats are one of a kind of technological advancement that will provide development of education, promote more scientific mission and even provide answers to complex questions like the formation of the solar system.

CubeSats are commonly launched through Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). Usually for larger satellites, a new launcher is created for each satellite. But with CubeSat the low cost of the research module required that the launcher be used several times without any problems. However the estimated cost of production and deployment of a CubeSat into low Earth orbit is about 65,000- 80,000 USD.

The CubeSat comes under the classification of picosat.  Picosats work by itself or on an assembly and the word swarm is used to refer to a group of cubesats used together. Sometimes a bigger satellite connects with the pico satellite for its functioning. A simple picosat payload would be only the size of a soda can and this makes its launch possible for as low as @12,000 to $18,000.

CubeSat Kits and launch opportunities

DIY Cubesat KitsThe first cubesats created by university students mostly comprised of commercial off-the-shelf products and simple batteries. Currently there are DIY kits available for creating CubeSats.

With this any person with enough knowledge on satellites and its assembly can have their own satellite made using the cubesat form factor. Launch, or deployment of CubeSats can be scheduled with companies like ULA (United launch Alliance) NanoRacks and others, which provides a range of low cost launch and deployment opportunity for students, commercial organizations and governments around the world.

Space Express is a newcomer but is expected, also, to come up with similar opportunities for students to make use of their partnerships with launch providers, satellite operators and are one of the new organisations educating the general public about citizen space researcy, CubeSats and opportunities to fly a range of other types of miniature satellites. The project also aims to increase the interest of the future generation in space initiatives.

Pumpkin CubeSat Kit began its operations in 1993 and since then has sold several kits that stick to the standards. The software is standardized to make use of less power and provide high efficiency. As you can tell, one of the main benefits of cubesats is that nothing new need be invented for a single research mission – unless the satelllite owner wants to innovate new hardware.

NASA CubeSat Space Mission

In February, 2015, NASA released a list of 14 Universities that will have their miniature satellites to be flown into low earth orbit in its upcoming missions. These launches of rockets are planned to take place through 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Years back NASA was one of the very few space agencies to offer such initiatives. The ultimate goal for the next 5 years is to successfully place 50 satellites from the 50 states into orbit. Recently, solar flares were a matter of concern and NASA has sent 17 CubeSats to look into the matter.

ULA was formed out of an alliance between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company in 2006. The aim was to provide reliable and low cost satellite and rocket launch services to US government for use in the defense sector, NASA and other organizations. The launch vehicles used are Atlas and Delta and they have a good track record of supporting US Space operations for over 50 years. They have a combined experience of over 100 years.

Get A Free CubeSat Launch Slot

The ULA Launch agency has called for applications from all US based universities and colleges to apply for their own launch slot for free. The opportunity also promotes the tie up with K-12 schools to part in the competition. They have also included the Student Rocket Launch Payload Program. The call for applications was sent out in April 2016 and the organizers have informed that the last due date for submitting completed applications would be by June 1, 2016. The awards are planned to be announced by the Summer itself. Learn more here.

The price of a CubeSat launch slot is a restraining factor for the universities to have their satellites put into space. With this opportunity by ULA, the eligible ones can get themselves a free CubeSat launch slot. The number of winners will be 6 and they will be delivered as secondary payload on two Atlas V missions. The organizers have also informed that this will be a precursor to a larger plan of adding slots for commercial operations and university researcy with every Atlas V and Vulcan Centaur launches.

Or pay for your own mission

What you put in your miniture satellite is up to you – from biological research experiments, microgravity games, photographic or sensing equipment or your grandpa’s ashes. However only research of scientific merit is likely to win free cubesat slots, the rest of us will have to start saving up early to launch our mini spacecrafts into space.