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CubeSat Highlights: a Brief History

From acting as an encouraging learning tool to inspiring critical discoveries, CubeSats–small satellites/payloads–have played an instrumental role in the space realm. These payloads are described as being the “size of a rubik's cube”, and have hitched rides on the International Space Station (ISS), Falcon 9 rocket, and the ongoing Artemis missions’ Orion spacecraft. Given these statistics, it may be assumed that CubeSats have a thorough and costly history. What may surprise students and educators, however, is that CubeSats have had a relatively short yet meaningful history that is sure to expand in coming years. CubeSats were developed in the late 1990’s by professors Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs as an affordable and relatively feasible method for students, businesses, and corporations to make contributions to space. Given their notable missions throughout the 2000s, CubeSats will undoubtedly increase in popularity in coming years–enabling nearly anyone to go to space.

Biology and space are known to intersect in several facets, primarily when considering the possibility of life forms existing and changing in the space environment. NASA’s first CubeSat, GeneSat-1, aimed to explore these principles in 2006, less than 10 years after the CubeSat’s design was conceptualized. GeneSat-1 carried the bacteria E. Coli (a well-established model organism) to space to see if the environment modulates gene expression, thus causing differential protein formation. For example, radiation in space may affect metabolism within a specimen–a critical point to consider for long-term human presence in space–but the degree of this change cannot always be phenotypically (physically) observed. A fluorescent protein with accompanying light can be infused into the organism to detect if certain proteins are expressed or changed in different environments (Kitts et al., 2007). To ensure the changes were visible, scientists enabled the CubeSat with a “thermal control system” to monitor the internal environment, containers with sugar water to maintain the organism, and sensors to detect genetic changes (via fluorescence). Within a month, according to the cumulative research paper, the satellite had completed all original goals (accompanying Russia’s Dnepr rocket) (Kitts et al., 2007). While limited data on this experiment is easily accessible, GeneSat-1 undoubtedly pioneered the extensive presence of CubeSats in a spatial environment for years to come.

Recent CubeSat missions, including Mars Cube One (MarCO), have aimed to expand the potential of these small payloads by exploring deeper into space. Per NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the primary objective of these (two) CubeSats (named EVE and WALL-E) was to communicate the “entry, landing, and descent (EDL)” of InSight, a spacecraft that monitored seismic and temperate activity on Mars beginning in 2018. This was accomplished by installing two cameras on each payload to capture images of Mars and InSight from the beginning of the mission. The MarCo CubeSats were notable as the smallest payloads that had been sent to space, also acting as dual points of communication to confirm consistency in data collection. Despite the CubeSat’s mission concluding in 2020, and InSight retiring two years later, MarCO leaves a lasting legacy of the potential of small, affordable payloads in the space environment–namely, their extensive communication and technological abilities.

In a mini-series of “Let’s Go to Space: BLUESKY Learning,” we hear from AIA's Kevin Simmons, who discusses several facets of CubeSats–including their extensive, yet recent, history. Mr. Simmons also provides a thorough tour of the design and goals of CubeSats, having been the principal investigator of several of such payloads. Students and educators interested in constructing CubeSats will certainly benefit from watching these vodcasts (linked above). Learn more about CubeSat fundamentals and beyond, or visit our other weekly podcasts to hear from other speakers, by clicking the link above. Also make sure to check out our website to learn more about becoming a member of the Aerospace and Innovation Academy, where you can join us in our quest to go to space.

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