Blog from November, 2012

First posted on

Seeking all Kiwi spacecraft designers!   Ok, so perhaps those interested in learning to design a spacecraft….


A few of us at KiwiSpace Foundation ( have been interested in starting a CubeSat design competition within New Zealand. CubeSats are very small satellites – with the basic unit being 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. This may seem tiny, but with modern day electronics you can fit a lot of smarts in such a small space. They're typically put up into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and only last a few months or years before they burn up in the atmosphere. That’s still long enough for some science experiments, or to test some new space hardware.

The QB50 opportunity

QB50 ( is a project by the European Union, to launch a constellation of 50 CubeSats into low earth orbit. All satellites will contain a set of common science instruments to take measurements as their orbit decays through the lower thermosphere.

The project is fairly well advanced (most satellites have been selected by now), but KiwiSpace recently approached the QB50 team, and negotiated a window for New Zealand to apply to participate in this project.

And this is where you come in – we need to find interested people to get involved with the project, and in particular a ‘sponsoring’ university to formally submit the proposal.

A 2U Atmospheric Satellite

Briefly, the QB50 satellites will be in orbit for up to 90 days, and degrade slowly through the atmosphere. They all host a one of a common set of science instruments:

  • Set 1: Neutral Mass Spectrometer, FIPEX, Laser Reflectors, Thermal
  • Set 2: Ion Mass Spectrometer, Langmuir Probe, Laser Reflectors, Thermal

In exchange for doing this, you get an extremely discounted launch price of €20,000 (approx. $32,000 NZD) – and you can use whatever space you have left in the satellite for your own purposes. 

QB50 Timeline

Here’s a summarised version of the QB50 timeline:

May 2012 - Selection of CubeSat teams
Oct 2012 - Contractual agreement with organisers

Mar 2013 - Preliminary Design Reviews (at each university)
Jul 2013 - Flight sensors dispatched
Nov 2013 - Critical Design Review (at each university)
Nov 2014 - CubeSat flight model environmental testing
Jan 2015 - CubeSat flight model delivery to ISIS
Apr 2015 - Launch
Apr-Jul 2015 -QB50 flight operations

The timeframe is relatively tight, but achievable – essentially one year to design (2013), and one year to build (2014). 

KiwiSpace’ Goals

KiwiSpace is a non-profit organisation seeking to boost New Zealand’s participation in the space sector, building capacity within NZ and helping graduates into space careers (abroad to start with).  To-date, most of our efforts have been focused more at intermediate/secondary school – but in parallel we have been fairly active at international forums, to identify and nurture opportunities such as this.

Our objectives for encouraging CubeSat projects such as QB50 include:

  • Capacity building
    • Build on the KiwiSAT effort ( – and maintain technical expertise, institutional awareness, etc.
    • We ideally would like to see ongoing CubeSat development, and ideally launches every 2-3 years – by universities throughout NZ
  • Education and outreach use of the satellite 
    • We had similar discussions with KiwiSAT and would like to develop educational uses of any satellites developed by NZ (and potentially other members of the constellation). Simple examples would be getting students to downlink data (learning orbital mechanics, signal processing, etc.), target a camera on the satellite, etc.
  • National prestige and awareness
    • There’s no denying that having our own home-grown satellite in space (either through QB50 or KiwiSAT) would be a great catalyst for furthering investment in this sector, and captivating the imagination of students.

Prior to QB50, we had been considering and in casual discussions about holding a form of CubeSat design competition in NZ. Our preliminary concept was to do an on-paper set of design challenges over a year, followed by some non-flight and flight prototypes the next year. At the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) this year in December, we will be discussing with JAXA what is involved with launching satellites from their new CubeSat launcher on the KIBO module on the International Space Station.

The QB50 opportunity we see as a logical alternate for this, either adopting the competition format – or more sensibly (given committed timeframes) a national consortium; potentially leading to ongoing competitions in subsequent years.

Opportunities for New Zealand

  • Build and fly a NanoSat in Space: Depending on KiwiSAT’s launch timeframe, a QB50 satellite could potentially be the first in orbit. We would gain experience actually operating a satellite, collecting real science data, etc.
  • Fly an experiment for NZ science community: Whatever free space is left in the CubeSat you can use for your own purposes – so there may be a way to align the satellite’s design with scientific work being done in NZ. The relatively short lead-time to launch suggests this could fit well with current project/thesis work.
  • Fly and test hardware in space: There is the opportunity to space-rate hardware very cost-effectively through this flight. Companies such as Rakon (which purchased a space component manufacturer recently) may desire space-rating of their components; organisations such as the Defence Technology Agency may have an concept they with to validate, before investing into a more expensive test program; etc.
  • Develop a ground station system: We could potentially develop a series of small ground stations to support data retrieval from this satellite constellation (and others). Venture Southland has been looking to develop the station at Awarua, etc. We could partner with GENSO (Global Educational Network for Satellite Operations), adding another distinct geographical footprint to their network.

There are significant secondary benefits to being involved with an international effort such as QB50 – which has a lot of support built-in to help countries develop their capability.

An Education Mission

KiwiSpace strongly advocates an education/outreach mission for this first satellite.  We can engage students with interactive activities using the satellite, and channel them towards science, technology and engineering study and careers.


For the basic 2U satellite carrying the sensor set, we need to find €20,000 (~$32k NZD). This covers launch and the common sensors (e.g.  build it, and it’s launched for that cost.  That’s a bargain!

On top of this we would need to build and test the satellite.  How much that costs depends on the number of people prepared to get involved.  The low-risk approach will cost more, but you can effectively buy ‘QB50 satellite kitsets' from around $100k NZD. There’s still a lot to learn from this approach, regarding satellite operations, instruments, integration, etc.

And there are certainly cheaper options if we build more of the satellite locally - but this would require a larger team with the right capabilities to achieve this in the timeline.

So overall, I estimate we’re looking at direct costs of around $60,000-150,000 NZD.


I personally believe that this project would be very sponsorable.  Who wouldn’t want to have their company name and logo associated with NZ’s first or second satellite!

With the right mission of education/outreach, you’d get a lot of media coverage and engagement at schools. 

Someone suggested a cool feature of the satellite would be to have a camera with a fisheye lens mounted on the outside of the frame – so that you could see the satellite body and the Earth below in a glorious scene. Then, place an LED display on the outside too, within the field of view – and let people send up personalised messages. Imagine a photo of your "Hi Mum" message, or "Will you marry me ___" with that gorgeous background … and a sponsor's logo of course :)


We believe this is a superb opportunity for New Zealand. The launch cost is extremely cheap – and while there’s less flexibility with the satellite design, it’s pre-definition is probably beneficial given the relative immaturity of New Zealand when it comes to satellite construction. There is also a committed launch date in the near future – meaning students engaged with the project are likely to see their handiwork fly, and can use the in-orbit results in their future studies, etc.

There will also be a huge data set available (from all satellites) to all participating teams, so also a wealth of opportunity for post-launch science and analysis.

Are you interested in getting involved with this project?  We need to find a tertiary student team (and potentially commercial partners) willing to get behind it – and some people who are prepared to talk to their supervisor or department head and convince them to formally back the project. 

And of course we're looking for interested sponsors!  Would you like to have your brand associated with one of NZ's first satellites?


Please email me at if you’d like to get involved, or have any questions.

Mark Mackay
Executive Director,
KiwiSpace Foundation