Bigger doesn’t always mean better. When we talk about businesses in space, it is important not to become obsessed with size, because the advantages of CubeSats over conventional satellites can also be considerable, depending on the type of project.
Let's start by asking if it makes sense to talk about a supposed CubeSats vs. conventional satellites debate. In reality, both have their own space and advantages. The focus should not necessarily be on size, but on other priorities, such as the specific characteristics and needs of the project, and how functional, operational and economic requirements fit with the performance of different types of satellites.
Depending on these criteria, a large number of advantages of CubeSats and small satellites over conventional satellites can be found. Or vice versa. It all depends on the type of project you want to carry out.
What are CubeSats, and what do we mean when we refer to conventional satellites?
Before we look at those advantages, let's first clarify exactly what we mean when we talk about conventional satellites and CubeSats.
In this small satellite guide you can find more detailed information, although basically, large satellites are those that weigh more than 1,000 kilograms, medium satellites weigh between 500 and 1,000 kg, and small satellites are those below 500 kg. In this article, when we talk about conventional satellites, we are referring to large and medium satellites, those that weigh more than 500 kg.
Within these sizes, where do CubeSats fit? In reality, this term does not refer to a specific size, but to a standard for manufacturing satellites with certain characteristics and in the shape of a cube. The current sizes of CubeSats always comply with the definition of small satellites (less than 500 kg), specifically the categories of nanosatellites (between 1 and 10 kg) and microsatellites (between 10 and 100 kg).
What are the main advantages of CubeSats?
There are a large number of services that can be provided from space. Depending on the type of business you want to develop, which is what will condition the choice, it is possible to identify 10 main advantages of CubeSats vs. conventional satellites:
More accessible to companies of all types and sizes. For a long time, only a few countries and multinationals had the financial muscle and the technical and human capacity to access space. This has changed. The introduction and widespread use of CubeSats and small satellites has meant a total reduction in space barriers for all types of companies and countries.
Advances in technology, the reduction in prices, the appearance of new providers and the reduction in waiting times for the implementation of new projects in space have had a decisive influence on this transformation.
More affordable costs. This is a basic criterion for any company. A conventional satellite, as a reference, can cost between 100 and 300 million euros. A CubeSat, less than 500,000 euros, although the exact price depends on several factors, such as its size, the complexity of the type of service you want to carry out or whether it is the first CubeSat of a constellation or a replica, in which case the price is reduced considerably.
Shorter development times. The New Space age is about the ability to start projects quickly, without waiting too long. A conventional satellite requires very long development times, between 5 and 15 years. On the other hand, the first CubeSat of a constellation can be in space within 8 months, and if we are talking about replicas, this wait is reduced to only 2 months.
More up-to-date technology. Nowadays, technological advances are moving at a dizzying speed. As we have just seen, to have a conventional satellite, the waiting time can be up to 15 years. Its half-life once in space is also quite long, which is positive on the one hand (for obvious reasons), but also has its negative side. It is not difficult to find functioning satellites that use technology from more than 25 years ago.
Now let's think for a moment about a mobile phone (or any other device) from 10, 15 or 25 years ago. In that case, the risk is to see a service in space with obsolete technology or without the capacity to take advantage of the possibilities of new technological advances.
In the case of CubeSats, they are usually designed for a useful life of 2-4 years. In a constellation, with each new replica that comes in to replace another small satellite, it is possible (and recommended) to incorporate updated technology. In this way, the services offered can be significantly improved and extended with the help of the latest technology available on the market.
Smaller size and weight. These are two criteria that are closely related to the price of satellites. Let's think of some steps that need to be taken into account in the development of this type of projects, such as launch and logistics.
In the case of launchers, the price of putting a satellite in space is measured in kilograms. The heavier it is, the more expensive it is to launch a satellite. And when it comes to logistics, the level of complexity and the price of moving a CubeSat have nothing to do with the device that needs to be deployed in the case of a conventional satellite.
Risk distribution. CubeSats usually operate in constellations, so the different satellites provide backup and redundancy to the services they offer. If a small satellite becomes unusable, for whatever reason, the project does not fail, but the other CubeSats can fill that gap while waiting for a replica to be placed in orbit to take the place of the damaged satellite. And all this in a very short period of time.
This is not the case with large satellites, as the consequences of a serious breakdown can be catastrophic for the mission, with the added problem that launching another satellite to take its place can take a matter of years.
We can also consider other factors beyond the manufacturers' control, such as launching. We can find recent examples of large satellites that were lost without reaching space. As it happens, in the last two years, the United Arab Emirates’ Falcon Eye 1 military satellite (which cost more than 400 million dollars), the Russian Meteor-M No.2-1 weather satellite (45 million dollars) or the Chinese Yaogan-33 satellite.
These are risks that exist, even for small satellites. The difference is that the loss of a CubeSat allows more room for manoeuvre, even in the short term, and has fewer economic and operational repercussions for the service you want to provide from space.
More flexible services. The adaptability and flexibility offered by a CubeSats constellation is enormous. If a new business opportunity is detected, it is possible to implement new functionalities and services in a relatively simple way. Each new CubeSat that is renewed within a constellation is an opportunity to improve the features and solutions offered.
Without the need to wait for the launch of new CubeSats, there is also room for manoeuvre for reconfiguring the payload of small satellites in space, for example in the case of projects that use SDR platforms.
Greater independence and control over the project. Let's think for a moment about projects with conventional satellites. Except in the case of multinationals or government agencies with high economic and technological capabilities, which may have their own large satellites, most companies offer solutions based on contracting third-party satellite networks. This translates into dependence on intermediaries and a lack of control over certain areas that may have a direct impact on the services they offer.
On the contrary, CubeSats open up space to companies that can now have their own small satellites. Without intermediaries and with absolute control over their services.
Greater data security. When intermediaries come into play, the risks associated with the security of the information being transmitted also increase, especially if it is sensitive and strategic data for a company or for a government.
Having a CubeSats constellation avoids having to transmit this information through satellites in countries that are not very respectful of data protection and intellectual and industrial property, with all that this can mean when it comes to preventing leaks or problems derived from geostrategic and commercial tensions.
Standing out from the competition. Between companies competing in the same sector, having your own CubeSats constellation can be a very interesting competitive advantage. For many companies, it is also a good opportunity to expand their services, diversify and explore new business areas.
As we have seen, size is not a decisive factor when we refer to CubeSats vs. conventional satellites. For certain projects in space, there are numerous advantages of CubeSats, although there are other services that may require larger satellites. Everything will depend on the type of business you want to start in space.
Featured image: DUVI