One of the biggest developments in recent space research is physically quite small. The CubeSat, an invention from California Polytechnic State Universityand Stanford University, is a miniature cube-shaped satellite that has turned into an invaluable resource for researchers in varied fields. The tiny satellites have proved themselves to be an effective, less-expensive alternative to traditional research satellites, and they’ve recently gotten even more efficient to produce as manufacturers begin 3D printing them.
While CubeSats are much less expensive to produce than traditional satellites, it’s still not that cheap or easy to launch them into space. The mini-satellites still need rockets on which to ride into outer space, and the space and weight allotments on rockets are pretty limited – but a California company is working on a way to make launching CubeSats easier, cheaper and more efficient.
CubeCab’s idea would not only get more CubeSats into space, but it would repurpose a fleet of retired fighter jets for a new mission.Starfighters Aerospace in Florida operates the world’s only flight-ready fleet of F-104 jets, which were taken out of military service in 2004. CubeCab’s idea involves filling a small, lightweight 3D printed rocket with CubeSat microsatellites and attaching it to the pylons beneath the F-104’s wings, where bombs would have been attached during the plane’s military days.
The F-104, which is capable of reaching sustained speeds of Mach 2.2, would then be launched from Cape Canaveral. Once the jet climbed past 100,000 feet, the rocket would launch, deploying its payload of microsatellites into orbit.
According to CubeCab, their idea could cut the cost of launching a load of CubeSats to about $250,000. Yes, it seems like a lot of money, but it’s significantly cheaper than other methods of deployment – and a lot more convenient for the owners of the CubeSats. It’s not just a cost issue; to get a CubeSat into space now, researchers have to wait around for space on a rocket to become available – and once it does, they’re stuck with using whichever orbit the rocket happens to be going to. With the CubeCab service, the researchers launching the satellites would be able to choose the specific location of orbit in which to place them. They could also order satellites to be launched on demand.
“We intend to have very fast times between ordering and launching,” CubeCab Chief Operating Officer Dustin Still told the BBC. “We aim for 30 days from order to launch, most launch providers work on the timescale of about two-to-three years from order to launch. A typical mission might be getting an order from a college to launch a cubesat into a specific orbit. Within a few days later we should get the cubesat and load it into a rocket we have set aside for launch in Florida for regular equatorial orbits, or another facility or almost any location for a polar orbit launch.”
[Image: Starfighters Aerospace]
CubeCab believes that they can have the service fully available by 2018. The 3D printed rocket, which they’re calling the Cab-3A, will carry, specifically, 3U CubeSats, which are units of three 10 x 10 x 10 cm satellites stacked together. Naturally, there’s some competition: the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on their own project called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA). DARPA’s program would involve using F-15 fighter jets to launch satellites into low Earth orbit.
CubeCab isn’t swayed by competition, though. According to the company, their 5kg rocket is the smallest currently being commercially developed, meaning that not only is it sized for the CubeSat standard, but it’s much less expensive to launch than others. The low cost of their rockets, plus the flexibility the service will offer, will enable many more people, from universities to individuals, to get their satellites into space.
“Our mission is to enable experimentation with the orbital environment,” CubeCab states. “By providing fast, low-cost launches, we intend to place hundreds of CubeSats into orbit per year. In short, we aim to enable “citizen science” in space.”