The CubeSat Project creates launch opportunities for schools

Lead Image © Oleksiy Tsuper ,

Pi Cubed

In the not too distant future the Raspberry Pi will take off from its humble beginnings on this planet and make a voyage into space. We review the CubeSat Project and talk to Patrick Stakem, an educator and pioneer of open source in space.

CubeSat is a set of open source specifications [1] defining a launchable satellite for use in space exploration and experimentation. The basic one-unit (1U) CubeSat [2] is 10x10x10cm (1 liter) and no more than 1.33kg [3]. The specifications, set forth in 1999 by Cal Poly and Stanford universities (California), are designed to simplify the process and lower the cost of putting projects in space with the use of off-the-shelf electrical components.

Many academic institutions, governments, and corporations support and use CubeSat [4]. Until recently, home-brew or expensive closed source hardware, along with closed and open source software [5] [6], powered many projects, but in late 2013, the Kickstarter project ArduSat [7] launched a CubeSat with Arduino components and a number of sensors, all controlled by a special open source SDK [8] designed for ArduSat experiments.

CubeSat also is a useful educational framework that provides a limiting form factor and thus allows the student to push the boundaries of what might be possible once basic principles have been learned. Students and developers can envisage a project, progress to the next level of engineering design, then take the steps to make their concept a reality.

NASA's ongoing CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) [9] was designed to provide educational experiences and a chance to launch a project into space. Similarly, the Kennedy Space Center Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) project [10] teams NASA and universities to launch small-satellite research projects.

Pi in Space

LunarSail [11] is an open source solar sail and successful Kickstarter project. At the heart of LunarSail is a 3U CubeSat. With it, the team hopes to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to navigate into a lunar trajectory and insert itself into Lunar orbit. A primary objective of the LunarSail mission is to serve as a testbed for CubeSat operations beyond low earth orbit and for applications requiring lunar or interplanetary rendezvous.

The website states, "LunarSail is being developed in an open manner as much as possible. We are using open-source hardware and software wherever applicable. The main computer system is based on the Raspberry Pi architecture, modified for the space environment. We chose this platform because it is open and uses the Linux operating system but also because it has not been utilized in a spacecraft before." LunarSail aims to be the first "amateur" satellite to reach lunar orbit and hopes to get a free launch via the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative.


NASA's open source, platform-independent Core Flight Executive (cFE) framework for embedded applications [12] consists of the cFE Core and the Core Flight System (CFS) Mission Build libraries and applications. For more information about the internal workings of the software, you can refer to Alan Cudmore's NASA slide set [13]. The software interacts with all parts of the software and hardware.

Courtesy of

Multiple CubeSats flown together can improve communication and data processing speed via clustering [14]. For example, in the exploration of a planet, Beowulf clustering software [15] could provide supercomputer processing power at a fraction of the cost of a full-sized computer.

Courtesy of

Solar-powered atmospheric satellites (atmosats) are designed to operate at altitudes exceeding 20km (12 miles) for as long as five years. They can perform duties more economically and with more versatility than low-earth-orbit satellites. Likely applications include weather monitoring, disaster recovery, earth imaging, communications, and planetary exploration.

The 4th Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop (iCubeSat) [16] takes place in South Kensington, London, May 26 and 27, 2015. I hope to see you there.

An Interview with Patrick Stakem

To gain further insight the educational possibilities of CubeSat, I approached Professor Patrick Stakem about a CubeSat project that students at Capitol College, Laurel, Maryland, [17] are hoping to run. Stakem previously ran the FlightLinux Project [18] from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Linux Magazine How did Capitol College get started on CubeSats?

Patrick Stakem So, this starts with little radio-controlled cars, boats, and quadcopters using cheap computer boards and loads of sensors (some of the balloon payloads use a cell phone as the computer and control element). This gets the students engaged in a fun project that shows results and that they can relate to.

Running a radio-controlled car with a WiFi camera over a simulated Martian landscape brings fun to science, and the students are hooked. Launching real payloads on rockets, balloons, or quadcopters provides further incentives to continue in the field of study. Along the way, they are introduced to how much they don't know, while being able to implement real projects that return data that has to be analyzed.

Subtly, in the background, we are introducing the scientific method and good engineering practice. The student projects, focused on exploration, start with cheap off-the-shelf land, water, and air vehicles; transition to balloon; and then to CubeSat. An entire spectrum is presented that can go from very young students to the graduate level. Along the way, we teach them to work in collaborative teams with increasingly more difficult projects that take more than one skilled person to accomplish.

LM The learning process leads somewhere?

PS It is not just the fun of launching rockets or balloons [or] running remote control trucks and boats, it is defining a science mission, putting the right sensors and data system together, accomplishing the mission, and analyzing the results. The focus is changed from the hardware to the mission. Utilizing the hardware for a purpose develops skill sets in computer hardware [design], software development, [and] sensor and mechanism interfacing [as well as] a healthy level of interest in building something that works. A lot of this is enabled by inexpensive technology that has capabilities far beyond what was available even a few years ago. Now we can assume GPS location [services]; wireless communication anywhere; very low cost, low power computers; and increasingly complex yet easy-to-interface sensors.

The latest approach, termed Cloud Robotics, makes use of existing computation and data resource infrastructure for mobile robots, accessible via wireless LAN technologies. The convergence of multiple enabling technologies, along with the rapidly decreasing cost of highly capable systems, has led to university, high school, grade school, and even individual efforts. We are at the point with CubeSats where an individual can reasonably consider having his own payload launched into Earth orbit. Exciting group projects like the DARPA [Robotics] Challenge or the Google [Lunar] XPRIZE are the follow-on for the cadre of skilled individuals operating in a technological ecosystem. Student teams can be located all over the world, collaborating via the Internet.

Blimp and solar-powered long-duration aircraft can serve as atmosats, operating for weeks, months, or years at altitudes of 60,000 feet or more. This is currently an area of research, but applications include severe weather monitoring, forest fire detection and mapping, and data gathering from very remote locations of the globe. These vehicles can take advantage of the GPS infrastructure for location and satellites for communications. Smaller units flown at lower altitudes as student projects use cell phones as the communications link. In large areas of archeological interest, such as deserts and jungles, flying drones can be a major help in the big picture, locating areas of interest to explore for ground teams. Other applications include smart buoys [with] a sensor net deployed to measure water temperature and salinity.

Along the way, the student teams evolve technically to the point where they can apply technology to pressing problems – on this planet or in space. That's our nefarious plan. We want to develop students who not only can program, or integrate hardware, or define mission parameters, but can produce solutions to problems, like global warming.

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