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CubeSat camera systems: The new norm in the space industry

CubeSats are miniature satellites that have gained popularity over the years, thanks to their smaller size and reduced costs.

spacex starlink satellite

CubeSats are some of the popular nanosatellites available in space today. Their small sizes and versatility make them popular among research companies and universities. CubeSats find several uses, from disaster response, communications to climate monitoring. 

Among the critical components found in a CubeSat include an internal computer, sensors, and a CubeSat camera externally integrated into the design. We’ve explored more about these CubeSats in the subsequent sections. 

What is a CubeSat? 

A CubeSat is a special type of research spacecraft built to standard dimensions called units or “U.” One unit measures 10 cm X 10 cm X 10 cm. 

CubeSats are available in varying sizes, i.e., units – either 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U. One unit typically weighs less than 3lbs (1.33kg) and can be deployed into space cheaply compared to an actual satellite. 

A typical satellite could be the size of a small bus and is often launched for high-end space exploration missions. A CubeSat, on the other hand, is often launched as auxiliary payloads on pre-planned missions. 

Initially developed for educational purposes, CubeSats are now orbiting the earth and other planets. Specially designed CubeSats cameras often accompany them for tech demonstration, scientific research, and even commercial-oriented missions. 

More often, a CubeSat tends to use the extra space available during rocket launches. That means lots of launch opportunities at relatively lower costs. 

For these reasons, this small satellite technology offers affordable access to space for smaller companies, research centers, and learning institutions. 

Below are some of the typical uses cases of CubeSats:

  • For remote sensing and communication purposes in low Earth orbit.
  • For moon and space adventures and explorations.
  • For research purposes, e.g., measuring ozone distribution in the stratosphere or electron density in the ionosphere.
  • For advanced mission and concepts demonstrations, e.g., using constellations, swarm disaggregated systems. 

Now that you know what a CubeSat is, it’s time to explore what these miniature satellites contain.  

Anatomy of a CubeSat 

Every satellite subsystem should be designed to meet a specific set of quality standards. 

CubeSats comprise an antenna, onboard computer, magnetometer, power supply, solar cells, and a transceiver. Similarly, they’ll need a mission-specific CubeSat camera system onboard to provide a reliable imaging solution. 

Like any space technology, CubeSats require high-end precision from design to launching. That said, the choice of CubeSat cameras is highly dependent on the size of the satellite. Let’s explore more about CubeSat cameras below.

CubeSat Camera Systems 

Over the last two decades, CubeSats have become increasingly popular in the space industry. Not only are they cheaper to design, but also easier to launch. 

CubeSat cameras are among the most critical parts of this satellite technology and are available in a wide range of resolution and spectral imaging capabilities. These cameras are also available in varying sizes to match the different designs and functions of CubeSat cameras. 

Additionally, CubeSat cameras offer a wide capture bandwidth but with lower resolution. That way, storage, revisit of the images, and gradient sensing becomes more convenient. The modular design of the CubeSat requires these cameras to be extremely precise. 

Every CubeSat will need a camera that meets the needs of the mission. That means these mini cameras should be highly customizable to integrate conveniently into the satellite design. 

low earth orbit satellite from spacex
Pictured: A SpaceX satellite (Image: Unsplash)

Choosing a CubeSat Camera 

Like all the other aerospace cameras, CubeSat cameras capture the reflected signal from a space object and store it as a panchromatic, multichromatic, or hyperspectral image. All these images range from visible to infrared EM radiation. 

When choosing a CubeSat camera, whether for earth observation imaging or technological demonstration, keep the following factors in mind. 

  • The unit size of the CubeSat – satellites are available in varying sizes. The CubeSat camera should match the size of the satellite. 
  • Technical consideration – these range from operating temperature range to the built-in speed data storage. The right CubeSat camera should meet your orbiting and imaging needs. Most cameras have operating temperature ranges between -20 to +70 degrees Celsius. Data storage speeds are within the scope of 128 to 1024 GB. 
  • Flexibility – The CubeSat camera should be designed for a wide range of loads to ensure convenience. Similarly, they should easily integrate into all the satellite designs.  

Final Thoughts 

Since its design in the late 1990s, CubeSats have seen widespread adoption in the space exploration sector. With a simplistic design, miniature satellites pack everything into their compact size, from a computer to a camera. 

A CubeSat camera is one of the critical components that determine not only the quality of images but also the success of the mission. Choosing the right camera for your miniature satellite is, therefore, a priority. 

Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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