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Tech Brief: CubeSat Confusion – Technical and Regulatory Considerations

Success in space flight operations is often difficult due to the harsh space environment. Naturally-occurring charged particles and other cosmic radiation cause short and long-term issues with on-board electronics and mechanical mechanisms; extensive amounts of UV light degrade satellite surface treatments; and the extremes of heat and cold challenge satellite designs. Additionally, self-induced issues involving design, construction, testing, launching, and monitoring can result in premature satellite failures, so the odds are stacked against full mission success for many resource constrained space missions. Of particular concern is the growing number of very small satellites (CubeSats) launched en masse that for a variety of reasons are never identified or brought online because of early on-orbit failure. As the number of massed CubeSat launches rises, and the number of CubeSats per launch increases due to flight opportunities brought about by launch consolidators, the number of CubeSats deployed that are “dead on arrival” (DOA) increases. Beyond the heartbreak this brings to the owner/operator teams, DOA CubeSats violate guidelines and best practices designed to decrease the amount of space debris* in orbit. This paper investigates the detailed nature of this rather paradoxical problem, in which the inability to identify (ID) a satellite may cause its early demise and a non-functioning CubeSat may be difficult to ID, adding to the confusion. To mitigate this problem the paper will examine a number of regulatory, systems engineering, and technical solutions involving low-cost means to facilitate identification of CubeSats after launch along with planned flight demonstrations of some of these techniques and technologies. The desired outcome is to outline a practical means to independently identify space objects.

Tech Brief
Date: February 11, 2021 Time: 12:45 pm - 1:00 pm Dr. Mark Skinner
Senior Project Leader for Space Traffic Management

The Aerospace Corporation