Northern Sky Research

Mass Challenge for Cubesats

Jul 6th, 2015 by Carolyn Belle   More from this Analyst | Profile

Cubesats emerged in 1999 as a tool for university STEM education. As their popularity grew, an ecosystem developed around this form factor and is a key driver of today’s expanding nanosatellite market. One quarter of nano and microsatellites launched between 2010 – 2014 were 1 Unit (1U) cubesats (10 cm3), and the operator pool has grown from universities to commercial, government, and military players. But as the small satellite market continues to grow, will 1U cubesats persist as a standard or be considered inadequate in favor of larger/more powerful satellites?

Evaluating Utility of the 1U

For small sat operators, mission cost, ability to leverage COTS components, launch opportunities, and ultimately payload capabilities drive form factor decisions. With larger size and greater payload capabilities generally come increases in cost, timeline, and mission complexity. Where does the optimal balance lay?

Cubesat Size Comparison

  • Too Large

Few potential users deem 1U satellites too large. That said, pico and femtosatellites, including the standardized PocketQube form factor, have been pursued by educational users as well as amateur radio and space aficionados. The principal draw thus far is obtaining space experience within a more manageable scope and decreased manufacturing and launch price compared to a full cubesat, and this will lead a small population of players previously in the 1U target market to turn to smaller platforms moving forward.

  • Too Small

The single largest concern voiced about the 1U form factor is its limited payload accommodations (mass, volume, & power). Despite prior commercial and government missions using the 1U form factor, these users are expected to opt for larger platforms in the future. Only one announced commercial venture leverages a 1U design, and the U.S. National Science Foundation recently stated that 1U cubesats are simply too small to accomplish meaningful science. The fastest growing nano and microsatellite operator community falls into this category.

  • Just Right

The original target user of the 1U cubesat – universities – are still very much the key market. 1Us provide the right balance of low costs, limited project complexity and timeline, and hands-on experience for a student team and (low) university resources. As universities gain experience and establish funding streams that enable them to pursue more ambitious larger missions, novice universities and even high schools are emerging to take their place in the 1U operator segment.

Despite plans for the commercial Outernet constellation using 200 1U cubesats, NSR does not anticipate full deployment of this system or ongoing use of this platform for commercial purposes.

NSR’s Nano and Microsatellite Markets, 2nd Edition found that the 1-3 kg nanosatellite segment – largely composed of 1U cubesats – will grow at a 3% CAGR over the next decade. Just over 500 such satellites are expected to launch by 2024. While this represents positive growth, it also belies the reduction in market share of this mass segment: a fall from 38% in 2010 to 12% in 2024.

Rather, the single most active small satellite segment is expected to be 3-10 kg platforms. Larger 10-100 kg platforms are the most rapidly growing, at a 14% CAGR.

A Preference for Larger Form Factors

In 2014 the 1U cubesat’s larger version, 3U, became the most prevalent form factor in this market. This was primarily tied to deployment of the Planet Labs constellation, but the platform is also integrated in plans for other commercial systems as well as a steady stream of government and university science applications.

While constellations using 3U platforms will sustain activity in this market through the next decade, NSR expects the next wave of growth to emerge with 6U and 12U cubesats. These larger cubesats strike a balance between enabling far more capable payloads but limiting manufacturing and launch costs and leveraging the benefits of standardization.  

Bottom Line

1U cubesats are a driving force behind today’s resurgent interest in small satellites. Simplicity and the concepts of standardization and COTS components championed through 1U cubesats opened the satellite market to diverse users, and these same ideas are now being successfully applied to larger form factors, both multi-U cubesat and otherwise. Yet, the demand for increased payload capacity to support diverse applications and more capable instruments is leading the market to larger form factors, and leaving 1U platforms to fulfill their original purpose as an educational tool. But in this dynamic and rapidly evolving market, the ongoing march of technology miniaturization could revive 1U utilization in the 2020s and beyond.

NSR is experienced in assessing small satellite supply/demand and market opportunities, including consulting and advisory services addressing key applications, the unique value chain, and launch services. Please contact Christopher Baugh for more information.