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Inspiration for CubeSats came from… Beanie Babies?

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Space has felt distant and an enigma to an average person, which isn’t surprising given the tremendous cost to launch a rocket, let alone a human into space. In fact, fewer than 600 people have ever entered space.

Last month we witnessed SpaceX become the first private company to put U.S. astronauts into earth’s orbit. SpaceX has proved that it doesn’t require a government to send astronauts to space and there are ways to reduce costs by being innovative.

While we’re still a long way off from affordable spaceflights to Mars, the invention of CubeSats has made it possible for people to send a satellite into space that can fit in the palm of their hand. So what are CubeSats and how did the inspiration come from beanie babies? We’ll answer all of that in this article.

What is a CubeSat?

A CubeSat is a miniature satellite that can be held in the palm of your hand. They were originally developed to give students a more hands-on approach to learning about space exploration. A CubeSat, as the name suggests is the shape of a cube and has a maximum mass of one kilogram. The basic CubeSat is 10x10x10 centimetres in length which is one unit. CubeSat units can be combined to form a larger CubeSat for more complicated missions.

CubeSats are a much more cost-effective way for scientific investigations, technology demonstrations and advanced mission concepts. They are popular with university groups, researchers, space agencies, governments and private companies.

RainCube in orbit

What do CubeSats have to do with Beanie Babies?

The CubeSat design came about because of two people: California Polytechnic State University Professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Stanford University Professor Bob Twiggs. They were trying to find a way to help university students gain engineering experience in satellites, which are expensive to build and launch.

During the late 1990s, Beanie Babies were hugely popular with kids and Bob Twiggs looked to them for inspiration. He bought a 10 cm plastic tube that was used to store Beanie Babies and thought about how many solar cells he would need to put on it. Twiggs then worked with the team at Stanford University to develop what are now the first CubeSats. The first CubeSats launched in June 2003 on a Rockot launch vehicle.

How have CubeSats improved since then?

At the time, many people told Twiggs and Piug-Suari that CubeSats were a stupid idea and that no one was ever going to use them. For the next ten years after the first launch, most CubeSats were used for university or research purposes.

Today, most CubeSats are used for commercial or amateur projects and there have been over 2,000 CubeSats launched as of mid-2018. Some space industry experts worry that CubeSats will create a lot of space junk surrounding the Earth in low orbot as they become more popular.

Last year the first CubeSats arrived on Mars as part of NASA’s(National Aeronautics and Space Administration) MarCO (Mars Cube One) mission.

CubeSat capabilities in Australia

CubeSats have the potential to not only help us understand the solar system but also help us protect life on earth. In Australia, CubeSats have the potential to be deployed to look at bushfires and flooding. They could even be used to monitor fish migration, drought, agricultural crops, deforestation and defence-related monitoring.

Anywise is currently collaborating with US open-source flight software company Kubos, who share a similar culture and passion for innovation. Read more here.


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