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CubeSats & Small Satellites

ASU CubeSat LunaH-Map over a lunar landscape

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is engaged in designing and building in-house a number of CubeSats and other small satellites. These spacecraft offer a relatively inexpensive way to send small, highly focused experiment payloads and instruments into Earth orbit and beyond, essentially hitchiking in cargo space aboard large rockets or released from the International Space Station.

These satellites and instruments offer direct, hands-on opportunities for our students and researchers in all programs, so they can design, build, and operate orbital spacecraft for research investigations and space engineering.

Small Satellites

Small satellites are those with masses of less than about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). Several different categories or classes of small satellites have arisen as researchers and technicians explore how small a satellite can be and still do useful work in space.

Class names are somewhat fluid, as the field is still relatively new. Among the small satellite categories are MicroSats, NanoSats (in the form of CubeSats), and FemtoSats.

MicroSats have masses of 10 to 100 kg (22 to 220 pounds). Their configuration depends on the design, instrumentation, and mission goals.

CubeSats are a special type of NanoSat, designed on a basic unit measuring 10 by 10 by 11.35 centimeters (4 by 4 by 4.5 inches). As a NanoSat, they have masses of 1 to 10 kg (2.2 to 22 pounds). CubeSat units may be joined together in various configurations for specific mission goals and payloads; for example, 1x3 or 2x3. These are termed 3U and 6U, respectively. A number of CubeSat projects are underway at SESE.

FemtoSats have masses of 10 to 100 grams (0.3 to 3 ounces). The basic building block unit of a FemtoSat is about 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) on a side.

Current Projects

 Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map)

LunaH-Map over the MoonThe Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper is a 6U CubeSat scheduled to launch in 2018. LunaH-Map is led by a small team of researchers and students at Arizona State University, collaborating with NASA centers, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, universities, and commercial space businesses. The LunaH-Map mission will reveal hydrogen abundances at spatial scales below 20 km in order to understand the relationship between hydrogen and permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s South Pole. (Principal Investigator Craig Hardgrove)



Phoenix is a 3U CubeSat that will investigate urban heat islands in several U.S. cities, focusing on the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area. The spacecraft will carry an off-the-shelf thermal-infrared imager providing sub-100 meter resolution. The 18-month mission will launch in 2018 and provide daily monitoring of the target cities. Phoenix is being developed and built by an interdisciplinary team of ASU undergraduate students under faculty mentorship. (Principal Investigator Judd Bowman)


Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat (SPARCS)

The SPARCS mission, led by the School, will fly a 6U CubeSat containing a telescope and a camera with two ultraviolet-sensitive detectors developed by JPL. The mission is to monitor the flares and sunspots of M dwarf stars to determine how habitable the space environment is for planets orbiting them. M dwarfs are very common in the Milky Way Galaxy and many have planets in their habitable zones. SPARCS will be designed, tested, and operated at the School, with participation by graduate and undergraduate students. SPARCS is anticipated to launch in the fall of 2021. (Principal Investigator Evgenya Shkolnik)



Thermal vacuum chamber test of OTES

Cleanroom Facilities

The School's home, the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4), contains laboratories and two spaceflight-certified cleanrooms for assembly and testing of instruments and spacecraft for missions beyond Earth. One cleanroom is rated at 100K (no more than 100,000 dust particles per cubic meter), the other is rated at 10K (no more than 10,000 particles).

The cleanrooms contain optical benches and vibration-isolated tables for assembling precision optical and mechanical parts for instruments and spacecraft. In addition, the 100K cleanroom also features a thermal vacuum test chamber (above) in which instruments and spacecraft can be tested under the temperature and vacuum conditions they will experience while in space.

The OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), now on its way to asteroid Bennu as part of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, was designed and built entirely in SESE's laboratories and cleanrooms. Two other deep-space instruments are currently under construction in our cleanrooms: one will orbit Mars and survey its atmosphere and climate, the other will go to Jupiter's moon Europa and look for thermal anomalies in the global ice shell where the sub-ice ocean may have recently broken through.

ground station antenna

Ground Station

On the roof of ISTB4 is a ground receiving and transmitting antenna, 3 meters (10 feet) in diameter. It will be used to communicate with the satellites built at the School and sent into space, such as the Phoenix CubeSat, currently being assembled in ISTB4. The antenna is also used to test new radio receivers, radio astronomy capabilities, and mechanical and software system upgrades.