The miniaturization of space continues, unabated. First came CubeSats, measuring about 11cm long and weighing no more than 1.33kg. These small research payloads have helped spur the development of a small satellite launch industry, and using the International Space Station to deploy them has become one of the national lab’s hottest commercial activities.
However, the evolution of satellites downward from thousands of kilograms, down to a single kilogram, does not seem to be stopping. On Thursday. Arizona State University announced it is developing FemtoSats, a 3cm cube with a mass of just 35g. These “SunCubes” grew out of a research project begun in 2014 by Jekan Thangavelautham, a professor in the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
The FemtoSats will deploy in an almost matryoshka doll-like manner—from a CubeSat fitted with a Jack-in-the-box-like spring. According to the developers, this mechanism will allow the FemtoSat standard to be bootstrapped to the CubeSat standard, allowing FemtoSats to be carried as additional payloads on CubeSat missions. A single deployer could release 27 FemtoSats.
The drive toward smaller payloads is being driven by launch costs. Even with their smaller size it costs about $100,000 to deliver a CubeSat to orbit and perhaps $10,000 to $50,000 to develop and prepare one for launch. According to the Arizona State developers, it will cost about $1,000 to deliver a FemtoSat to the International Space Station for deployment and $3,000 to send them directly to low-Earth orbit for deployment. Launch costs for escaping Earth’s orbit will be about $27,000.;