When the National Science Foundation (NSF) first launched its CubeSat program in 2007, it received 27 proposals, including those from prior skeptics who said they could never scale their payload to be small enough to fly on a CubeSat.

“They were some of the first to try,” said Therese Jorgensen, program director with NSF. “Since then the interest has only grown and we’ve been very successful beyond expectations.”

To date, the NSF program, which primarily funds university projects, has launched six CubeSat missions with four more currently in various stages of development. A new competition is planned for the spring to fund two more projects.

Not only do NSF-funded CubeSats provide data to inform scientific research at universities, they also provide students with valuable hands-on experience.

“Everybody knew CubeSats were good for educational purposes,” Jorgensen said. “Asking students to build something real that’s supposed to actually work in space and actually launch it, not just pretend—the training that it offers—the value of that nobody disputes. But there was still a thought when we had our first competition that people would laugh. They just never believed CubeSats could be useful and take real data and inform real science.”

Andrew Kalman, president of Pumpkin Inc. and director of Stanford University’s Space and Systems Development Laboratory, said CubeSats play a large part in the lab’s real-world training for aeronautics and astronautics students. In late 2013, students collaborated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to upgrade an existing CubeSat design, add a GPS receiver, and demonstrate the system at JPL.

“This plays very well to employers,” Kalman said. “We have had undergrads go to work for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency based on the work done in this lab.”

The Texas Spacecraft Lab at the University of Texas at Austin conducts space missions with SmallSats, including CubeSats, according to Glenn Lightsey, the lab’s principal investigator.

The lab conducts mostly government-sponsored research, with the bulk of its funding coming from DoD and NASA, although it does have some commercial partners as well.

“Our students are always hired immediately,” Lightsey said. “There’s never any issue with placing our students because they have these great hands-on skills.”

CubeSats have expanded into high school classrooms as well. In November, Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., made headlines with the launch of its TJ3SAT, a CubeSat designed to increase interest in aerospace technology as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of NanoSatellites Program. TJ3SAT was launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility November 19, a culmination of seven years of work by more than 50 students, according to the project’s website.

Additionally, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) CubeSat Program has numerous partners in academia.

“We try to bring [graduate schools] in and bring those folks up to speed to help us going into this next future,” said Tina Harrington, director of NRO’s signals intelligence systems acquisition directorate. “That provides an opportunity to do things differently than we would with our own programs.”

Featured image: Jennifer Williams (left) and Robert Carroll test an early prototype of Siena College’s Firefly’s photometer. Photo courtesy of National Science Foundation

Return to feature story: The Maturation of SmallSats

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