Tomorrow at 8:49 a.m. EDT, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aboard the rocket are 13 CubeSats, four sponsored by NASA and nine sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). One of the NRO sponsored cubesats was developed with NASA funding

NASA plans to host two pre-launch briefings later today. At 1 p.m. EDT, NASA will cover the background of cubesats and why they are important for exploration and technology development. At 2 p.m. EDT, NASA will touch on the five NASA-related CubeSats.

What are CubeSats?

Before I cover the specifics on each CubeSat heading into space tomorrow, let’s talk about what they are. The CubeSat Project was developed by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab. It’s main goal is to give schools and universities the opportunity to launch a satellite into space.

To do this, the CubeSat Project utilizes a standard physical layout and design. This helps reduce costs and development time. It also translates into more frequent launches. A CubeSat is a 10 cm cube and usually weighs less than 1.33 kg (3 pounds). This single configuration is often referred to as one unit or 1U. CubeSats are scalable in configurations of 2U, 3U or 6U.

Engineers use a system called a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (PPOD) to launch them. Check out three CubeSats before they are integrated into a PPOD in the picture below.

CubeSats PPOD

What tomorrow’s CubeSats are designed for

First, I’m going to cover the NRO-sponsored CubeSats. Remember, CubeSats are scalable so that’s why you’ll see weights exceeding 1.33 kg.

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AeroCube-5c and AeroCube-7: These CubeSats weigh 1.5 kilograms each. They are designed with communications in mind. Optical and laser communications will be tested along with tracking technologies.

SNaP-3: Developed by the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center, these three CubeSats will help develop “user software-defined radios” for beyond-line-of-sight communication for people in remote locations.

PropCube: Two 1-kilogram CubeSats tasked with performing dual frequency ionospheric calibration-measurements.

SINOD-D: These two CubeSats are also related to radio communications.

And, here are the NASA-sponsored CubeSats.

ARC-1: A 1-kilogram CubeSat designed to measure thermal and vibration environment during launch. ARC-1 will also “increase the Technology Readiness Level on both their attitude control and determination system, as well as, the high bandwidth communication system.”

BisonSat: This CubeSat will be used to train students on all things related to the operation of space hardware. Students from the Salish Kootenai College will use a special light camera to calculate and test land cover classification and cloud height measurements. BisonSat marks the first CubeSat designed, built and operated by Native American tribal college students.

AMSAT Fox-1: A 1-kilogram CubeSat with an amateur radio FM voice repeater. This will help provide easy portable satellite communications opportunities for amateur radio operators across the world. AMSAT Fox-1 will also test a low energy proton experiment.

LMRST-Sat – A 3-kilogram CubeSat designed to demonstrate the Low Mass Radio Transponder in orbit.


CubeSats aren’t just launching from the ground either. The ISS crew deployed several CubeSats yesterday and plan to deploy more today. By the end of today, a total of 16 CubeSats will have been deployed. They will conduct research on a variety of areas including communications, navigation and Earth observations.

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Weather permitting, 13 more CubeSats will be on their way to Earth’s orbit in the morning.

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