The future of CubeSats is co-operation

As you may already know, I have the most interesting dreams, hehe…

Apart from seeing weird alien entities during my nap time, I was also shown how the CubeSat idea can be properly commercialized. Beat that, MIT (or DMT).

So basically, I was shown a bunch of 3U CubeSats (around 10 or 12 of them), held together by some sort of string, forming a web. At the edges of the web, there were semi-large solar panels and antennas, while in the middle of the web, there was a propulsion engine, not larger than a 3U CubeSat itself.

Right now, all CubeSats are released in the wild on their own, with no propulsion (sometimes they end up facing the wrong way), terrible power abilities, and even more terrible communication (FM among others!!!). These satellites usually die within 3-5 months, quickly burning in the atmosphere. On top of that, they’re usually get released as secondary payload in LEO, while CubeSats are benefited in higher SSO orbit.

Here’s the business idea behind of what I saw:

– You let customers buy one of the CubeSats and customize it out of an array of most-popular components (third party components that pass evaluation can be accepted — that costs extra).

– The CubeSats run Android, so writing drivers for it, updating them over the air, or even completely erase them to their default status can be done. Each of the 12 CubeSats runs a slightly different version of the OS, and has different hardware — depending on the customer needs.

– The customer can access their CubeSat via a secure backend on the manufacturer’s web site. Even firmware updates can be performed, not just plain updates or downlink data.

– Because of the shared propulsion, the constellation web can be in SSO for up to 5 years.

– 1 year of backend support is included in the overall price, but after that time, owners can continue using it for an additional fee, or lease or sell the rights to their CubeSat to another commercial entity, getting back some of that invested value.

– Even if 1 CubeSat goes bad, the others continue to work, since they’re independent of each other. Triple redundancy system in case of shorting. To avoid over-usage of power due to faulty hardware or software (that could run down the whole system), a pre-agreed specific amount is allocated to each CubeSat daily.

– Eventually, a more complex system could be developed, under agreement with all the responsible parties, to have CubeSats share information with their neighbor CubeSats (either an internal wired network, or Bluetooth — whatever proves more secure and fast). For example, if there’s a hardware ability one CubeSat in the web has, but the others don’t, and one of the other CubeSats needs it, they could ask for its service — for the right price.

– Instead of dispensing the CubeSats one by one, the web is a single machine, about 2/3s the size of a dishwasher. The CubeSats have very specific allowed weight in their specification, so overall, while the volume is medium size, the overall weight doesn’t have to be more than 100 kg. That easily fits on the payload of small, inexpensive rockets, like the upcoming RocketLab Electron, which costs just $4.9 million per launch. Falcon 9 becomes cheaper only if it could launch 13 of these webs at once. While it can very easily lift their weight, it might not have the volume required (the Falcon9 fairing is rather small at 3.2m).

– This comes overall to about $600,000 per CubeSat overall (with a rather normal configuration).

The current 3U CubeSats cost anywhere between $20k and $50k to make, plus another $200k or so to launch. Overall, sure, $600k is more than the current going price, but with the web idea you get enough power, communication that doesn’t suck, propulsion, and an extended life — plus the prospect of actually making money out of them by leasing them or selling them. A lot of the revenue will come after the launch, as a service/marketplace business.

In a sense, this business idea is the equivalent of a shared hosting server service, which has revolutionized the way servers work, and has democratized people’s ability to run code or servers online. PlanetLabs is doing something similar by leasing “time” on their CubeSats, but by releasing them one by one, they fall on the stated shortcomings.

For all of this to become true, the CubeSats themselves would need an overhaul of how customizable their modularity is, and easy access to the latest mobile hardware. Overall, we’re probably 2-3 years away from such an idea getting even started to materialize, and possibly 5 years away from becoming reality. I haven’t seen anyone else suggested it, so, here I am. Thank my weird dreams.

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