Did you think that yesterday's launch of the MAVEN spacecraft was exciting? In one regard, that's nothing compared to tonight's event. A single Minotaur rocket will be lifting off from NASA's Wallops Island launch pad with a record 29 satellites aboard. The catch? These are CubeSats - a new class of tiny experimental spacecraft.
While none of these satellites has anything like the capabilities of MAVEN (or even the satellite bringing you DirecTV), each will provide a valuable platform for the testing of experimental technology. Produced by a range of universities and national laboratories, these 29 experiments range from scientific measurements to military applications to weather prediction.
CubeSats are so small (about the same volume as a loaf of bread) and so light (a kilogram or two) that they can't include their own propulsion. Instead, they are covered with solar panels and simply tumble through space. This certainly isn't ideal, but with a cost less than one percent of a normal satellite (less than $100,000!) it's difficult to be too picky. What they do offer is the ability to rapidly and efficiently test new ideas and new technologies.
By reducing the cost of access to space, we broaden the community we can involve in these exciting discoveries. One of the 29 satellites was even built by high school students! And this isn't just charity - with more minds engaged in solving these problems, the more groundbreaking new ideas we can develop.