As the saying goes, “knowledge is power”. Any industry that wants to effectively refine its processes and boost efficiency needs to base its actions on hard data. This is where CubeSat cameras come in. A CubeSat camera payload uses modular components to record geospatial imaging information. What’s more, it does this at a fraction of the cost of traditional monitoring satellites.
CubeSat cameras have played a huge role in the growth of small-scale, low-cost satellite launches, and over 1,200 have been successfully launched into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Why exactly is this technology proving so revolutionary within the space sector, and what possible applications could emerge in the future?
CubeSat Design Principles
CubeSat technology emerged in 1999 when two Californian science professors challenged their students to create a working satellite device with dimensions no larger than a shoebox.
This approach contrasted markedly with the mainstream space agency design philosophy of the time, as groups like NASA were preoccupied with developing prestige launch projects at great expense with no margin for error.
CubeSat takes another approach entirely. A small and inexpensive CubeSat nanosatellite costs a fraction of its larger counterparts to launch into space. This makes them a much more attractive commercial proposition, driven by the Silicon Valley startup model that encourages risky ventures with minimal outlay.
CubeSat cameras are composed of mass-produced off-the-shelf components, utilizing the kind of computer parts you might find in a modern smartphone. Most of these units are comprised of a processor, battery, solar panel, and imaging unit, all inexpensively produced. These help to contribute to the low costs of CubeSat manufacturers’ low costs and allow for a bigger margin of error with launch success.
While they lack the accuracy of larger satellite monitoring platforms, a group of CubeSat cameras can monitor far bigger areas of Earth at a fraction of the overall cost.
Commercial Applications of CubeSat Cameras
Satellite monitoring, once the preserve of the military and governmental space agencies, has now become available on the commercial market. The potential uses for this technology in a wide range of industries look to be considerable, and they are already widely leveraged for economic gain.
Agriculture is one sector where CubeSat cameras are making their presence felt. A constellation of CubeSat cameras can provide clients with the data to track crop health and terrain changes in near real-time. Geographical indices like deforestation, crop yields, and soil conditions can all be measured by CubeSat remote sensing, often with the aid of modern computer analytics to make the data easily understood.
The continuous delivery of accurate land data allows farmers to manage their crops more efficiently while saving time and money. There’s also much less need for them to manually inspect their crops on a regular basis.
CubeSat Earth observation also offers intriguing applications in the field of ecological studies and preservation. At a relatively low cost, they can be used to help track the impact of human activity on the environment and provide real-time measurements of climate change markers like glacier recession.
Microsatellites and the New Space Race
CubeSat cameras are one of the many examples of how the space sector is witnessing unprecedented commercial development at the moment.
Space startups have sprung up across the globe to drive economic development and explore the untapped economic potential of satellites and other technology. A CubeSat hyperspectral imager can launch from one of the many new sites that have sprung up in the past decade in countries as far-flung as Scotland and South Africa.
A CubeSat nanosatellite can also join the payload on large commercial contract launches that carry dozens of different devices into LEO at once. Even the established space agencies are putting their weight behind CubeSat technology: as well as funding third-party launches, NASA is helping transport the satellites for launch during their regular trips to the International Space Station.
CubeSat cameras are at the forefront of planned expeditions off Earth as well. NASA is using them to help prepare for its upcoming Artemis mission to put humans back on the moon by the middle of the decade.
Further afield, CubeSat imaging sensors are going to be instrumental in exploring the possibilities of mining for valuable natural resources on asteroids in our solar system.
Conclusion: The Tip of the Iceberg
It seems certain that CubeSat cameras have a long way to go to reach their full potential. Theoretically, they could be used to help track economic progress by monitoring shipping activity, farming productivity, and pollution levels. They could also be employed for humanitarian purposes, such as tracking mass migration or population displacement in the wake of war or natural disasters.
These eyes in the sky could be critical in helping map economic and ecological activity and so point the way to a more efficient data-driven future for all.
Do you think microsatellites are here to stay? Let us know in the comments section below.