Tuesday, August 15, 2023

From Beanie Babies to Earth Orbit: 20 Years of CubeSats

A typical CubeSat measures 10 centimeters
on each side and weighs 1 kilogram or 
less. (CQ Newsroom archive photo)
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the CubeSat, a small, standardized satellite spaceframe that opened up space launches to countries around the world and revolutionized the satellite industry. And of course, there was a ham at the helm. 

Back at the turn of the century, Professor Bob Twiggs, KE6QMD, then of Stanford University (now at Morehead State University in Kentucky) and Professor Jordi Puig-Suari of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were looking for a way to provide university students with hands-on experience in designing and building satellites. 

The result was the CubeSat, described by the AMSAT News Service as "a tiny satellite with the dimensions of a square tissue box," which broke through the previous satellite barriers of extremely high cost and lengthy development times. They developed a standardized cube, measuring 10 centimeters on each side and weighing only 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), into which student-designed experiments could be mounted and then launched into space as "hitchhikers" on rockets with other primary payloads. According to a 2012 article in the Journal of Small Satellites, Twiggs said the basic design of the CubeSat was based on the 4-inch cube packaging for Beanie Babies, which were extremely popular toys at the time.

The first CubeSat was launched in 2003. According to ANS, the CubeSat's design was released as an open standard and "opened the doors to space" not only for university space science programs, but also "for many countries that launched their first-ever satellites, including Colombia, Switzerland, Hungary, Vietnam," and others. Many amateur radio satellites launched over the past two decades have also been CubeSats.