In the half year since I wrote last September, the CubeSat field has greatly moved forward. Seven CubeSats have launched since that last blog include ESTCube-1 (solar sail test), Pegasus (testing carbon nanocubes for thermal control), the first PhoneSats (testing commodity smart phones in space), SOMP (testing software-defined radio), BeeSat (testing reaction wheels), and AAUSAT3 (testing arctic ship tracking), and FITSAT-1 (testing a high speed transmitter).
We are still at a cusp when CubeSats are few-- a couple dozen in a year, spread out across the world-- but growing. I predict that, in three to four years, most universities and colleges will have CubeSat capability, much as most are starting to teach app development or 3d printing-- fields that were also new half a decade ago, but are rapidly reaching the level of commodity and even necessity.
A notable point is to ask who is making these recent satellites? Estonia, Ecuador, NASA, Germany, Germany, Denmark, and Japan, respectively. If you accept the stance that CubeSats are a necessary testbed for advancing national space competence, then the CubeSat world is becoming increasing international.
In turn, this means space development is becoming an area of worldwide technological and educational interest. No longer the theoretical "maybe someday" of space, but real in the sense that several countries are training their student engineers and researchers in cutting edge space work.
One thing we quickly learn is space research is slow. Looking historically at the US/Soviet space race, what is notable is not just the milestones-- first satellite, first person in orbit, first person on the moon-- but the timescales.
The first satellite (Sputnik) was October 1957. The first human spaceflight (Gagarin) was April 1961-- almost four years later. Two countries engaged in massive research and development, and still years between major milestones. It would take another 8 years to land men on the Moon.
Equally notable, though, is the smaller steps in between the major milestones. Wikipedia's "Timeline of Space" lists new milestones practically monthly, little advancements that moved both sides forward by proving it could be done (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_Space_Race).
CubeSats play into this because one CubeSat mission, small as it is, provides a seed or core of experience for all the engineers, scientists and students involved. They become professionals and carry that experience forward, while other missions build on their work as well.
Each of the missions above is-- as is the point of CubeSats-- testing a new technology or capability. One core of my own "Project Calliope" is that there is a big difference between an idea and actually building something. And I remain with my assertion that we are reaching a point when a reasonably skilled amateur can build a satellite. I also note there is a difference between potential and actual creation.
In the movie "Ratatouille", there is an argument between a chef who asserts "Anyone can cook", and a critic who believes true chefs are rare. In the end, the critic asserts "Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*."
Not everyone can write a great book or cook a fantastic meal. And despite me proving that one non-engineer can build a satellite, I would hesitate to argue building one is easy-- just that it is possible. Instead, I assert that we are in an age when any dedicated technologist can create a CubeSat. The key is dilligence and perseverence-- and actually building something instead of just thinking about it.
Paraphrasing, not everyone will build a CubeSat, but a great CubeSat can come from anyone. As the past six months have shown, we can add that a great CubeSat can come from anywhere in the world.
Who Can Launch a CubeSat?