By Phil Plait | October 10, 2012 7:00 am

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:

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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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: CubeSats, ISS, space station

Comments (32)

  1. Stjnky

    Blurring the line between satellite and space junk.

  2. JohnW

    Kind of looks like they were thrown out the airlock rather than deployed.

  3. Fredrik Arnerup

    So do they do orbit calculations for these or do they just throw them out the airlock, hoping they don’t hit anything?

  4. z

    Fake. First one is obviously rendered, second is Gimp-ed.

  5. Ferris Valyn

    Fredrik – most cubesats are launched on launch vehicles (IE rockets) and usually are secondary payloads. The satellites are pushed out of a small pod (called a p-pod), when they get to their planned orbit.

    In the case of the ones near station, those were deployed from station. I presume they were put out more carefully than “throw them out the airlocks”

  6. Nigel Depledge

    I don’t know about cubesats, but back in about ’89 or ’90, the UoSsat amatuer radio satellites (made by the University of Surrey, hence the name) were launched as secondary payloads, by calibrated spring.

    Interestingly, UoSsat C was never launched, the reason being that they had negotiated a free launch with NASA on Shuttle. But the negotiations happened before Challenger blew up, so UoSsat C ended up sat at Cape Kennedy with no launches happening any time soon.

    Which just goes to show there’s no such thing as a free launch.

  7. Satan Claws

    This reminds me of an interesting question, to get a “feeling” of how much “elbow room” there is in LEO: if each of the 7 billion people on Earth “had” one Cubesat orbiting at 350km up, what would be the *average* distance (i.e. ignoring eventual collisions) between Cubesats? A back-of-the-envelope calculation gives me something like 4*pi*(6380+350)^2/7e9 = 0.08 km^2 per Cubesat which corresponds to a *ballpark* spacing of some 300 meters spacing between Cubesats… hehehe.

  8. Cameron

    Are we certain this isn’t the vanguard of mini-Borg?

  9. Alex W.

    I was wondering about the deployment procedure myself. Is it overarm, or undearm?

    I assume it’s more involved, because doesn’t orbital mechanics dictate that they would return to the ISS once every orbit if simply thrown overboard?

    Edit- Having read the AMSAT article, it seems the robot arm pretty much just placed them overboard, sitting in the same orbit.

  10. Maria

    I’m also curious about the orbits and their interactions. I assume they are tracked, but they are so tiny! Really cool.

    It sure seems like a packed place up there, like “Hoarders” in space. Are there any mummified cats?

  11. Chris

    It’s obviously the Invasion of the Very Small Cubes from Doctor Who!

  12. Fizz

    @8 Chris:
    I was just about to say the same thing. Run away if they start opening.

  13. amphiox

    re #8, #12;

    Not to worry. Due to a tragic miscalculation of scale, they’ll all be swallowed by a small dog.

  14. DanM

    I am reminded of a conversation I had with some folks from NASA a month or so ago. They were pushing for us to offer cubesat design as a project for our undegraduates. I have not yet had any opportunity to follow up on this idea, but I’d like to. I have the impression that some universities are already doing this sort of thing, and even have some cubesats already in orbit. If anybody reading this blog is involved in this sort of undergraduate science/engineering design program, I’d be interested to hear more about how it operates, what works and what doesn’t, and what it takes to get such an endeavor started.

    @ Nigel #6: free launch indeed. You should be ashamed of yourself. Or proud…

  15. Matt NY

    One of those satellites will flash a message in morse code that you can see with binoculars:

    Even if you don’t know morse code, the red or green flashes will be interesting to look at.

  16. John in UT

    Didn’t we see these small cubes recently on an episode of “Dr. Who”? 😛

  17. Excuse me, but this is nowhere near a new thing.

    The first amateur-radio-sponsored satellite, the OSCAR 1, went up in 1961. It too was inexpensive. An article about it I just read to refresh and further my knowledge tells me that it was built for $68. It represented a few other firsts as well. You can learn more at

  18. kiljoy616

    How stable are they in their respective orbit and do they fall back to the planet after a few years? Just wondering how bad it could get with all that space junk up there. Including retarded missile design to test destructions of spy satellites.

  19. @ Alex W. I was wondering about the deployment procedure myself. Is it overarm, or undearm?
    I assume it’s more involved, because doesn’t orbital mechanics dictate that they would return to the ISS once every orbit if simply thrown overboard?

    I was wondering about that too. If ejected normal or antinormal (perpendicular to the plane of the ISS’ orbit) you’d wind up with the sats on identical but slightly inclined orbits, meaning their paths would cross twice per orbit. A similar problem happens if the sats are ejected “out” or “in” (towards or away from Earth) as you have two similar orbits with differing arguments of periapsis, but still intersecting twice per orbit. If ejected retrograde or prograde (“in front” or “behind”) to the ISS, they’d wind up in slightly higher or lower orbits, but with an apoapsis or periapsis that reachest the orbit of the ISS once per orbit. They’d quickly distance the ISS, though, as their orbits would rapidly de-sync. The odds of meeting again would be very low. So if I were to guess, I’d guess for a prograde or retrograde deployment. Of course we’ve got infinitely more choices than these three exact axes, so it was probably some combination of the three.

    Of course, even in the case of synchronous inclined orbits where the sats could conceivably come right back and collide with the station, they’d only hit the ISS at the speed at which they were ejected, which I’m guessing would be rather anticlimactic :)
    “Oh look. Here come the cubesats!”
    *tap tap bump*
    “Oh well.”

  20. MadScientist

    I’m a big fan of space junk, it looks so cool when it’s orbiting with the ISS.

    @killjoy#18: they’ll be up there for a few years; the orbit degrades due to air friction but there isn’t a lot of air at 300km which is the lowest altitude for the ISS. At that altitude the air pressure is less than 0.001% of what it is at sea level.

  21. amphiox

    Did anyone else think of the ending to Portal 2 on seeing this?

  22. MadScientist

    @killjoy#18: OK, after a little research I can give you a more definitive value for the air pressure at 300km altitude: about 2x10e-10 of the pressure at sea level. (So I was missing quite a few zeros in my last post.) Space weather is complex though, so estimates in orbital decay have quite a bit of uncertainty.

  23. Infinite123Lifer

    Based on that 2nd picture … their not building a bypass . . . are they?

    “0.08 km^2 per Cubesat”

    yeah, thats about the time Earth gets obliterated. Oh well, we can always have another one built right? I got my towel.

    I’ll just save all my ignorance about my understanding of orbits or orbiting debris, how stuff moves through space particularly the hexahedrons in relation to eachother and the ISS and how those teeny tiny little cubes resemble decoy AllSparks. The pictures are a huge slice of awesome.

  24. Johnny Vector

    Cry baby cry,
    Make your mother sigh.

  25. How fitting that everyones favourite Borg ( seven of nine ) picked up on this article –

  26. kat wagner

    Outta this world. What could be cooler than the Dr. Who references?

  27. burnsbothends

    In my head, I hear one going “Help me spaceman! Spaceman, help me! SPAAAAAAAAAACCEEEEEEEEEE” and the others muttering at it to shut up.

    Then again, my love for Portal is immense, and these are just close enough in size to personality spheres that my fangirl was triggered.

  28. Joseph G @ #19 said: “So if I were to guess, I’d guess for a prograde or retrograde deployment.”

    That all makes sense.

    “Of course we’ve got infinitely more choices than these three exact axes, so it was probably some combination of the three.”

    That makes even more sense.

    However, one thought which occurs to me is that both the ISS and the cubes would experience drag, lowering their orbits. The ISS can be periodically boosted, so the danger of collision would disappear after the first boost.

    But before ISS boosting, would atmospheric drag affect the cubes more or less than the ISS? I assume the determining factor would be relative density, with the denser object less affected. So how dense are the cubes?

  29. Ben H.

    For those wondering, the cubesats were loaded into two small “guns” on the end of the Japanese RMS (robotic manipulator system). Each gun was basically a spring loaded tube that could hold 3 of these cubesats in a stack. There was a compressed spring at the back end that pushed them out at several feet per second velocity when a pin on the front was released. The RMS was aimed at a downward and aft facing angle to send the cubesats into a faster and lower orbit than ISS.

    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, TX


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