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Rapid prototyping small satellites

Published onMar 31, 2020
Rapid prototyping small satellites

This activity was originally developed by the ML Learning Initiative’s ongoing PLIX project. It was jointly designed by researchers from MIT and public librarians for family creative learning! Enjoy!

In this activity, you’ll begin to understand how small satellites give us insight about the mysteries of both deep space and our own changing planet! To put your knowledge into action, you’ll then use household objects and materials to rapidly prototype (and test) model CubeSats to be used for creating space-inspired art!

Introduction to Cube Satellites and Outer Space

What is a CubeSat? A CubeSat—short for “cube satellite”—is a miniaturized satellite used for scientific research. They were originally developed by researchers from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and Stanford University in the late 1990s in order to provide students a hands-on medium for education in space exploration and characterization. In general, they are assembled using cost-effective, commercially available off-the-shelf components, thus they may be constructed by dedicated space enthusiasts without comprehensive expertise or funding.

Launched by NASA in March 2014, this Cubesat uses commercially available smartphone technology in order to collect data on the long-term performance of consumer technologies used in spacecrafts.

While created for academic purposes, the use and development of cubesats has recently proliferated in governmental and industrial settings. For example, for many nations—like Switzerland—cubesats have become the first national satellite of their country. In the United States, NASA has begun to sponsor endeavors utilizing CubeSats: a recent mission - the Lunar Water Assessment, Transport, Evolution, and Resource (Lunar WATER) mission - employed the technology to study the formation, loss, and sequestration of water on the surface of the Moon.

Cubesats, at their smallest, can be a mere 10 cm cube weighing no more than 1.0 kg, made possible by similar electronics miniaturization concepts to those that produced smartphones. However, if a larger spacecraft is required, the CubeSats can be stacked together. They were initially only used in low Earth orbit for applications such as remote sensing or communications. However, recently, a pair of CubeSats has been deployed on a mission flying to Mars, and other CubeSats are being considered for the moon and Jupiter.

North Coast of Western Australia. This image of Earth was taken by a CubeSat developed students at Vermont Technical College. Theirs was the first satellite built by a college or university in New England to enter space . Image - Vermont Tech CubeSat Lab.

What are the benefits of using a CubeSat? Cubesats largely reduce the cost barrier of traditional satellites—since they’re so small and light, a rocket doesn’t require much fuel to carry them up. Moreover, in most cases they can just share a rocket with a larger satellite, effectively “piggy-backing” on them. This has encouraged governments, industries, and academic institutions in an increasing number of nations to participate in space exploration, and has promoted science education and technology in developing countries.

What are the design challenges of a CubeSat? The small size means that the electronics are smaller and are therefore more sensitive to radiation. Moreover, they cannot carry large payloads with them. Their low cost also means that they’re not built to last long - maybe a few weeks, months, at most a few years. Another major challenge when operating a CubeSat is obtaining useful data on Earth in a reasonable time period (days-months).

For more information on cubesats, Earth exploration, climate science, and remote sensing, you can review the following slide decks:

Rapid Prototyping

Before you begin your build, there are a couple of engineering constraints to keep in mind:

For a “1U” cube satellite (the smallest possible CubeSat), the size limit is 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. However, you can build “2U” or “3U” satellites, which can hold bigger payloads (for example, more cameras and more batteries to power those cameras):

A “2U” cube satellite is twice as large, and a “3U” cube satellite is three times as large.

Time to get to prototyping! Example materials you might like to use for rapid prototyping include:

  • cardboard and strong paper

  • various tape (we like to use silver and gold colored tape)

  • paper cups

  • zip ties

  • velcro

  • LEGOs

  • other materials available

    Rapid prototyping at a local public library

Depending on what payloads you will use (the next activity in this module), the designs of the cube satellites can be different. While this activity centers on ‘cube’ satellites, feel free to explore with other shapes! You can even create multiple different satellites to test their strengths against one another.

Here are some sample materials used for a build session:

Materials for rapid prototyping activity.

Satellite Testing

Now that you’ve created a small satellite, it’s time to put it to the test! Here are some ways to test the strength of your design:

Some example tests include a weight test (by putting a weight or heavy books on your satellite), a drop test (ensuring that the design can withstand hitting the ground from different heights), and a structural integrity test

You can use a variety of tools to test cube satellites in at home: scales, rulers, books for weights, a shake machine, etc. What can you find around your home that you can use to test your engineering skills? If you don't have a scale that is capable of measuring your designs, you can manually compare your design to different foods that you have that are known weights, or even compare them to quantities of water that you put in a bottle and use this calculator (  Better yet, if you can build a see-saw to balance them with a piece of wood or plastic and something to balance it on, you can really judge if they are the same weight!

A shake test is performed on a satellite!


  • Build a mock-1U satellite that contains a payload for a mission that you design! You can design both the satellite itself, and a payload to complete a certain task (like discovering new planets or identifying extra-terrestrials!) Share an image of your creation to the Exploring CubeSats forum!

  • “Learn one, do one, teach one” - share what you just learned or created with a member of your family!

Example Prototype Satellites:

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