It is human nature to superimpose human characteristics onto the world around us (it’s why cars can talk to us and misshapen marshmallows can look like your Uncle Barry), so let’s anthropomorphise the space programme for a moment.
There was its conception in early 20th century (a screaming, loud, often messy affair). There were the baby years (it fell over a lot) of the Second World War as folks like Werner von Braun tried to turn rockets into weapons. Then came the toddler years (frantic, shouty and everything done at full pelt) of the Apollo era and the space race.
Recently though, the space programme has had to grow up. Trying to find its own way in a recessionary world, it has struggled to do big things on smaller budgets. But why struggle to do a few big things when you can do many small things?
In 1999, two American scientists – Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari developed a new sort of satellite, called a CubeSat, that could fit in palm of your hand, weighed the same as a bag of sugar and cost just a few thousands pounds to build (instead of the hundreds of millions it costs to build ‘normal’ satellites).
CubeSats are (perhaps unsurprisingly) cubes that measure just 10cm in width, height and length and weight just one kilogram. Inside a standardised body, computer components, cameras, GPS, batteries and such-like just slot in place. They are so standardised that you no longer need an expansive team of engineers and scientists to develop a satellite – anyone can just buy the basic components “off the shelf”.
This means that a basic satellite (with admittedly limited functions) can be built by anyone for the space equivalent of buttons. Throw more money at them (at get some serious engineers) and you turn a single cube that goes ‘beep’ into a multi-cube craft that is capable of proper space programme-type stuff (like looking for exoplanets or charting climate change). Send up a constellation of hundreds, or thousands, and suddenly you could really compete with the big boys – all for a fraction or a fraction of the cost of missions like Hubble.
So, could the next age of the space programme be one ruled by tiny little cubes?
Is the space programme entering cuberty?
For a much more comprehensive look at CubeSats, check out my mahoosive feature over at www.sen.com