10 tiny satellite technologies

If you're not certain as to the differences between nanosats and cubesats, or how these tiny satellites are launched and what they do, then read on.
  • Tiny satellites have made space accessible to a new generation of university students, private companies and even helped cash-strapped government agencies like NASA. Generally known as nano-satellites (nanosats) or cube-satellites (cubesats), this technology has been made possible by the semiconductor driven miniaturization of electronic and electro-mechanical systems. In recognition of the trend, the IEEE has even launched a new journal on, “Miniaturization for Air and Space Systems (J-MASS).”

    Mass is a premium consideration when placing anything into space. That’s why the names of tiny satellites depends upon their mass. Nanosats are the general category for any satellite with a mass from 1 kg to 10 kg. Nanosats include the categories of well-known cubesats and perhaps less well known PocketQubes, TubeSats, SunCubes, ThinSats and non-standard picosatellites. Chipsats - cracker-size, gram-scale wafer miniprobes - are not considered nanosats but have been called attosats by some.

    Cubesats (cubesatellite, cube satellite) are a type of nanosatellites defined by the CubeSat Design Specification (CSD), unofficially called the Cubesat standard.

    The original goal of all these tiny, miniature satellites was to provide affordable access to space for the university science community. Many major universities now have a space program, as do several private company startups and even government agencies like NASA and the DoD.

    The focus of this slideshow is to show nanosat technologies, from the carriers and launch mechanisms to several NASA cubesats performing a variety of missions. We’ll end with an example of a chipsat. Let’s begin!

  • Nanosat Forecasts

    Nanosatellite launches with forecasts, as provided by Nanosats. Note that Nanosats predicts over 3,000 nanosatellites to launch in 6 years.

    Database includes and term nanosatellite implies them all:

    All cubesats are from 0.25U to 27U.Nanosatellites from 1 kg to 10 kg and shown in kg.Picosatellites from 100 g to 1 kg.PocketQubes, TubeSats, SunCubes and ThinSats.

    Database does not include (generally):

    Femtosatellites (10 g to 100 g), chipsats and suborbital launches.Cubesats bolted to upper stages & not meant to be separate objects.Satellites only in idea or concept phase (often difficult to determine). There is a long non-public waitlist for such missions & constellations.Data is since 1998. There were at least 21 nanosatellites launched in the 1960s (Vanguard, OSCAR, ERS) and 1 in 1997.
  • Cubesat Sizes

    Cubesats come in several sizes, which are based on the standard cubesat “unit”—referred to as a 1U. A 1U cubesat is a 10 cm cube with a mass of approximately 1 to 1.33 kg. In the years larger sizes have become popular, such as the 1.5U, 2U, 3U, and 6U, but new configurations are always in development.

  • Dispensers

    One of the MarCO Cubesats inside a cleanroom at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, before being placed into its deployment box. The deployment box ejected from the briefcase-sized cubesat into space after launch. It and its twin accompanied the InSight Mars lander when it lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in May 2018. The MarCO and InSight projects were managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate by JPL-California Institute of Technology.

  • Launch Vehicles

    Cubesats contained in a dispense catch rides into space via launch vehicles (LVs). Originally, the cubesat/dispenser package was bolted onto the rocket where space was available. That is still how most cubesats make the journey, although there are now other options available. For example, a cubesat can be sent with the cargo on a resupply mission to the Space Station. The cubesat would be taken aboard the Space Station and released into space in a specially designed deployer.

  • Planet-Hunter Cubesat

    A small satellite designed to hunt for new planets beyond the solar system recently looked down at Earth to capture an image of California's "City of Stars." The cubesat, called the Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics or ASTERIA, was composed of cubic units that measure 10 centimeters (4.5 inches) on each side. This particular cubesat was made up of six units

    Lots of orbiting small satellites can take higher-quality pictures of Earth than this one. But ASTERIA is the only cubesat in orbit that can also look for exoplanets, or planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Its primary mission objective was to demonstrate precision-pointing technology in a small satellite.


  • One Water-Powered NASA Spacecraft Commands Another

    In this mission, NASA demonstrated the first coordinated maneuver between two cubesats in low-Earth orbit as part of NASA’s Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration mission. The twin spacecraft, each approximately the size of a tissue box, were orbiting Earth about 5.5 miles apart when they established a radio frequency communications cross-link to “talk” with each other. One spacecraft issued a command to the second to activate its thruster and close the gap between the two. The fuel tanks on both spacecraft are filled with water. During this propulsive maneuver, the water was converted to steam by the thrusters to propel the spacecraft

  • Three Cubesats Deployed from Space Station

    Three Virginia university satellites are beginning a science mission after their successful deployment from the International Space Station (ISS). The Virginia Cubesat Constellation mission will obtain measurements of atmospheric properties and quantify atmospheric density and how it relates to orbital decay.

    The cubesats were deployed as part of NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative. Funded by the agency’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Program (USIP) and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, the mission is a collaborative project of the consortium and four of its member universities: Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Hampton University in Hampton. More than 150 undergraduate students across many disciplines at these universities have worked on the mission for the past three years.

  • Cubesats Headed for the Red Planet

    Two Mars Cube One (MarCO) Cubesats hitched a ride with the Mars InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. The InSight lander was designed to study the "inner space" of Mars: its crust, mantle and core. MarCO's design is a six-unit cubesat about the size of a briefcase. They will be the first cubesats attempting to fly to another planet.

  • Small Satellite Explore 'Space Junk' Solution

    In this mission, the International Space Station (ISS) deployed the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite into space from outside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. This technology demonstration was designed to explore using a 3D camera to map the location and speed of orbital debris or "space junk."

    Additionally, the NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite successfully deployed a net to capture a nanosatellite that simulates debris. Collisions in space could have have serious consequences to the space station and satellites.

  • Chip-Size Satellites

    Chipsats – sometimes called nanocrafts - are gram-scale wafer satellites that carry cameras, photon thrusters, plus power supply, navigation and communication equipment. The cracker-size miniprobes were recently deployed from a KickSat-2 carrier spacecraft. The KickSat project began at Cornell in 2011.


John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.


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