Satellites have gotten smaller – so you too can do science in space

Do you want to fly into space? It could cost you.

This month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft will make the first fully private crewed flight to the International Space Station. The retail price for a seat is 55 million US dollars. The ticket includes an eight-day stay on the space station including room and board – and unparalleled views.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have cheaper alternatives that can take you to the edge of space for as little as $250,000 to $500,000. But flights only last between 10 and 15 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy an in-flight snack.

But if you like to keep your feet on the ground, things are looking more affordable. Over the past 20 years, advances in small satellite technology have put Earth orbit within the reach of small countries, private companies, university researchers, and even do-it-yourselfers.

science in space

We are scientists studying our planet and the universe beyond. Our research reaches into space to find answers to fundamental questions about how our ocean is changing in a warming world, or to study the supermassive black holes beating at the hearts of distant galaxies.

The cost of all this research can be astronomical. The James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched in December 2021 and will search for the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, had a final price of $10 billion after many delays and cost overruns.

The price for the International Space Station, which has hosted nearly 3,000 science experiments over 20 years, was $150 billion, with another $4 billion a year to keep the lights going.

Even weather satellites, which form the backbone of our space-based observation infrastructure and provide essential measurements for weather forecasting and natural disaster monitoring, cost up to $400 million each to build and launch.

Budgets like these are only available to governments and national space agencies – or a very select club of space-loving billionaires.

space for everyone

More affordable options are now democratizing access to space. So-called nanosatellites with a payload of less than 10 kg including fuel can be launched individually or in “swarms”.

Since 1998, more than 3,400 nanosatellite missions have been launched, returning data used for civil protection, maritime transport, crop monitoring, educational applications and more.

A key innovation in the small satellite revolution is the standardization of their shape and size, allowing them to be launched in large numbers from a single rocket.

CubeSats are a common 10 cm format that can be built using off-the-shelf electronic components. They were developed in 1999 by two professors in California, Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, who wanted graduate students to gain experience designing, building and operating their own spacecraft.

Twiggs says the shape and size were inspired by Beanie Babies, a sort of collectible stuffed animal that came in a 10cm cubic display case.

Commercial launch providers such as SpaceX in California and Rocket Lab in New Zealand offer “rideshare” missions to spread launch costs across dozens of small satellites. You can now build, test, launch and receive data from your own CubeSat for less than $200,000.

The universe in the palm of your hand

Small satellites have opened up exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond.

A project we are involved in uses CubeSats and machine learning techniques to monitor Antarctic sea ice from space. Sea ice is a crucial component of the climate system and improved measurements will help us better understand the effects of climate change in Antarctica.