Thinking Outside the Cube

Anita Bernie

Small satellites have become attractive tools for diverse space mission applications. Groups of small satellites are well placed to address applications that require global coverage or high temporal resolution, which cannot be achieved with an individual satellite. CubeSat standard formats and interfaces have made it easier to develop small spacecraft, and encouraged the creation of an ecosystem of companies providing technologies and services. This has stimulated a rapid growth in the number of “Owner-Operator” organisations that intend to develop commercial services in communications, Earth Observation and other areas.


Previous programs have shown that users tend to demand greater capability once basic capabilities have matured. Historical data indicates that 50kg-class microsatellites designed  in the 1990’s formed the basis for a large number of 80-150kg spacecraft missions in the 2000’s. Similarly, we now expect advances in Cubesat technologies to lead to demand for more capable nanosatellites; we have already seen 1U CubeSats being overtaken by 3U CubeSats, and 6U, 12U and even larger “CubeSats” emerging.


There is now a large user base for CubeSats, driven by demand from academic, institutional and commercial customers to fly larger, more complex payloads, underpinned by a robust, reliable spacecraft bus that can deliver longer mission lifetimes. However this community has become accustomed to the CubeSat design standards, pricing and schedule philosophies. This paper provides an overview of the Nanosatellite market, and describes  a professional nanosatellite bus which applies such CubeSat approaches to larger, scalable nanosatellites. This increases mission value, and supports more demanding payloads which cannot be easily accommodated in a CubeSat format in an affordable manner.

This paper presents example mission architectures as well as current SSTL missions to illustrate how increasing the mass and volume of a nanosatellite can provide substantially higher return on investment in science or commercial terms.