Much as personal computers liberated scientists from the bathroom-sized mainframes of yesteryear, pygmy satellites nicknamed CubeSats may free space scientists from the constraints of mega-ton research satellites. With the scheduled launch of four new CubeSats in June, on NASA's Minotaur rocket, the revolution might be one step closer.
CubeSats are four-inch-cube satellites that gather data in low-Earth orbit, about 250 to 400 miles up. First launched in 2003, the units have become a favorite tool of universities because they cost less than $100,000 and because their size and simplicity encourage creative experimentation. The CubeSat movement has been so successful that the National Science Foundation recently announced it would support two to three CubeSat launches every year.
The key to CubeSats is standardization. All are plated in solar panels for power, and none exceeds one liter in volume or one kilogram (2.2 pounds) in payload. Standards...