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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy


By Phil Plait

Here's a slice of weird: a photo taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station of three small cubes floating by:


What could they be? Balok's warning buoy? Tiny little Borg ships? The ISS trying to roll a crit 18?

Nope. Those are CubeSats, small satellites about 10 cm (4 inches) on a side and having a mass up to a little over a kilo. Even though they're teeny, they can be packed with a lot of equipment. Typical mission payloads are pretty diverse, from testing hardware for communications and satellite attitude control, to taking images (and other observations) of Earth, monitoring the satellite's radiation environment, and even detecting dust in space. Because they're small and relatively cheap (well under $100,000 including launch), space missions using CubeSats can be done by smaller institutions, including schools.

The picture above is from the deployment of three CubeSats on October 4 - the 55th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, humanity's first artificial satellite. Two other CubeSats were sent out in a separate deployment as well.

Here's another shot of the three regular Platonic hexahedrons over Earth:

8060557043_0cba06e420_z.jpg These three are amateur radio satellites: they transmit a signal amateur operators on the ground can pick up. You can find more pictures and technical info at the UK Amateur Radio Satellite webpage.

It's amazing that we've come so far that satellites can be done this inexpensively. Heck, people can even hold a contest to put stuff on small satellites like these! It's really opened up what kind of space science and exploration can be done, and I have to admit, is something I never thought of when I dreamed of space travel as a kid.

Or heck, as an adult either. People are clever, and for them the sky is no longer the limit.

Tip o' the Borg nanoprobe to my editor at the Hive Overmind, Amos Zeeberg. Image credit: JAXA and NASA

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