Launching satellites into orbit is often time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, especially if the object in question only weighs a few pounds—as is the case with CubeSats. Future launch provider CubeCab believes it can offer a faster, cheaper way to get them into low Earth orbit. How? Launch the CubeSats from a flying Starfighter.
The technical details: CubeSats are small satellites developed using specifications originally put together by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University in 1999. They are made up of cube-shaped units measuring 10x10x11.35cm. Each unit has a mass of 1.33kg or less. The 3U (3 unit) version that CubeCab is working with weighs in at a maximum of 4kg (8.8lbs). It sounds tiny, but it’s an ideal platform for certain types of space research.
Here’s where it gets fun. Rather than sending rockets up from the ground, CubeCab plans on using the never-more-aptly-named F-104 Starfighter as a launch platform. A small, primarily 3D printed rocket will be loaded up with a CubSat. The rocket will then be attached where the Starfighter used to carry bombs. Then, one of the very lucky pilots at Starfighters Aerospace gets to dash up to 60,000 feet and push the little red button. The rockets carry the satellites up into orbit and the Starfighter heads back to Earth. Neat, tidy, and it will only cost you about $250,000 in loose change.
At the moment, CubeCab is claiming the average time to get a similar satellite into orbit two years. They’re offering a turnaround of closer to a few months. For anyone worried about security, CubeCab will test each satellite for safety and make sure it meets regulatory requirements before launching. The extreme time savings come from not needing to build a standard ground-launch rocket and wait for a big enough payload to justify sending it up. CubeCab is hoping to begin operation as early as 2018.