In this post we give an overview of launch separation systems for CubeSats and microsatellites and share listings of multiple products available on the global marketplace - if you would like to skip the introductory material and instead get straight to the product listings, please click here.
Taking CubeSats to orbit
In the late 90s CubeSats were a very new form factor system for the launch vehicles serving the market. Unlike larger spacecraft, which have their own adaptors to mount on launch vehicles, CubeSats have a very small volume with little room available for mounting equipment.
The CubeSat development community had to come up with new ideas to maintain the safety of the launch vehicle as well as ensure that the satellite would be delivered to space.
This led to the creation of standardized separation systems for CubeSats in the form of canisterised dispensers called Picosatellite Orbital Deployers (PODs).
PODs act as simple deployers or dispensers and allow the separation of multiple secondary payloads from a launch vehicle. The standardization of CubeSats themselves also led to the adoption of a standardized deployment system which could be factored into all new CubeSat mission development.
In addition, with the evolution of form factors within the CubeSat standard, there are now different sized PODs in use, such as 3U, 6U, 12U and 16U launch separation systems.
Image credit: NASA.
How launch separators work
The separation systems essentially minimize the risks for the primary payload and for the launch vehicle.
CubeSats are ejected from the piggy-back PODs after reaching the relevant orbital altitude. The common form factor and standardized weight of the CubeSats is necessary to ensure that they are properly integrated into the CubeSat deployer without requiring customization or hindering its effective operation.
PODs feature spring plungers that act as simple mechanisms which provide a basic push to the CubeSats once the doors on the PODs are open on orbit.
Deployment switches are used to ensure that all CubeSats are inactive during launch and pre-launch activities.
CubeSat launch separation system providers
In the section below you can see an overview of several launch separation systems available on the global market that can be used by CubeSat and small satellite developers to put their systems into orbit.
This list will be updated when new products are added to the global marketplace for space - so please check back for more or sign up for our mailing list to get all the updates.
If it is a more general launch option that you are looking for then please note that we have also previously published an overview of launch service providers for CubeSats and smallsats.
You can click on any of the links or images below to find out more about each of the solutions and can submit a request for information (RFI) on the pages that open or send us a general query using our RFI tool to discuss your specific needs and we will use our global network of suppliers to find a system to meet your specifications.
The EXOpod 12U/16U by EXOLAUNCH GmbH
EXOpods are designed to ensure easy integration, safe transportation and reliable separation of Cubesats. In the basic configuration the 12U EXOpod can feature up to 4 separation slots, each the size of a 3U Cubesat. This way one deployer can carry up to four Cubesats. Special adaptors can be used to load 1U and 2U Cubesats in a 3U slot. Individual slots can be connected allowing a 12U EXOpod to carry two 6U or one 12U Cubesat. The 16U version of the EXOpod can accommodate two 6U XL, two 8U or one 16U Cubesats respectively. It is made in Germany and is not subject to export restrictions.
The Canisterized Satellite Dispenser (CSD) is designed to be a reliable, testable, and cost-effective deployment mechanism for small secondary or tertiary payloads. It fully encapsulates the payload during launch and thus provides mission assurance for both the primary payload and launch vehicle. All material in the primary load path is Table I for stress corrosion cracking. All external surfaces are electrically conductive chem-film aluminium alloy.
The CSD is easy to use and operate. The act of closing its door automatically preloads the payload tabs. There are no pyrotechnics. The door initiator is a DC brush motor with substantial flight heritage. The CSD can be cycled in a matter of seconds without consumables. The motor is a high torque transducer and provides valuable feedback to the health of the mechanism by monitoring voltage and current during each operation. The CSD has unique features that allow mounting to any face. This reduces the necessity for heavy interface structures and allows the CSDs to be densely packaged on the launch vehicle.
The XPOD Separation System was developed for nanosatellites and small microsatellites. The XPOD is an enclosed “jack-in-the-box” container for separating nanosatellites from virtually any launch vehicle. Various models are available, including models compatible with the CalPoly CubeSat standard. Once a deployment signal is received from the launch vehicle, a power supply inside the XPOD activates a release mechanism causing a door to open and the spacecraft to be ejected.
The XPOD implements a single-failure fail-operational design, and is customizable for spacecraft up to 16kg with arbitrary dimensions. Also available are semi-enclosed (or “open concept”) designs that accommodate fixed appendages. XPODs come in various standard models – the XPOD Single, XPOD Triple, and XPOD GNB models are pictured above.
The QuadPack, DuoPack and ISIPOD deployers are very well-known and some of the most flown CubeSat launch adaptors in the world. Developed by ISIS - Innovative Solutions In Space to accommodate CubeSats on-board a large variety of launch vehicles, through ISIS’ turn-key ISILaunch Services, or with tailored integration support.
The QuadPack and ISIPOD deployer product lines can accommodate any type of CubeSat or nanosatellite, from 1U, 2U, 3U, 6U up to 12U and 16U, while custom formats and volumes can be quickly realized. Each ISIS deployer provides simple, well-defined interfaces for CubeSats internally and the launch vehicle externally, with an optimized balance between internal versus external volume and payload versus deployer mass. All ISIS deployers are fully qualified with flight heritage on 6 different launch vehicles so far.
The PicoSatellite Launcher (PSL) family is designed to ensure the safety of the CubeSat and to protect the launch vehicle (LV), the primary payload and the other satellites to be launched. After the safe transportation of the device into the relevant orbit, a deployment with a high reliability and a low spin rate is achieved using patented design principles. Following successful deployment, a telemetry signal is available for the launch provider.
The family of CubeSat Deployers consists of the Single Picosatellite Launcher (SPL), the Double Picosatellite Launcher (DPL) and the Triple Picosatellite Launcher (TPL). The SPL is used to deploy one 1U CubeSat. The DPL is used to deploy one 2U CubeSat or two 1U CubeSats etc. The product line relies on a modular and redundant design approach with focus on high reliability of the chosen space proven parts and principles.
The Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) is a self-contained CubeSat deployer system that mechanically and electrically isolates CubeSats from the ISS, cargo resupply vehicles, and ISS crew. The NRCSD design is compliant with NASA ISS flight safety requirements and is space qualified.
The NRCSD is a rectangular tube that consists of anodized aluminium plates, base plate assembly, access panels, and deployer doors. The NRCSD deployer doors are located on the forward end, the base plate assembly is located on the aft end, and access panels are provided on the top. The inside walls of the NRCSD are a smooth bore design to minimize and/or preclude hang-up or jamming of CubeSat appendages during deployment, should these become released prematurely. However, deployable systems shall be designed such that there is no intentional contact with the inside walls of the NRCSD.
For a deployment, the platform is moved outside via the Kibo Module’s Airlock and slide table that allows the Japanese Experimental Module Remote Manipulator System (JEMRMS) to move the deployers to the correct orientation for the satellite release and also provides command and control to the deployers. Each NRCSD is capable of holding six CubeSat Units – allowing it to launch 1U, 2U, 3U, 4U, 5U, and 6U (2×3 and 1×6) CubeSats.
The GPOD is available in 1U, 2U, 3U, 3U+ and customized versions. The triple unit (3U) GPOD may be used both for dedicated 3U CubeSat launches and shared CubeSat launches consisting of a combination of smaller-sized CubeSats. Example combinations are: 3x1U, 2x1.5U, 1U+2U and 3U or 3U+.
The system features accessible panels - all the side panels of the GPOD deployer allow the access to the integrated CubeSat. This means that the whole area between the guide rails over the entire CubeSat length may be freely accessed. The door of the GPOD is also equipped with a round open area to access the top of the satellite. In case of a 3U CubeSat in a UniSat Platform-Satellite mission, this top access zone may be used to power the CubeSat until the integration of the UniSat satellite inside the rocket.
Launch separation system portfolio of Antrix Corporation Limited
Antrix Corporation’s portfolio features non-pyro dispensers for nano satellites. In the launch separation systems the satellite is kept inside a rectangular structure and locked by a swinging door. The systems also feature a redundant heating element for wire fusing mechanism to initiate the separation and helical spring to jettison the satellite. Micro switches to monitor the door opening and reed switch to confirm satellite ejection are also included. Three models are available:
- INLS 1U - for 1kg class nano satellites
- INLS 2U - for 2kg class nano satellites
- INLS 3U - for 3kg class nano satellites
A number of different-sized Albapod systems are available which can deploy up to 96p of PocketQubes (e.g. for constellation development). Suitable for 1p, 1.5p, 2p or 3p PocketQube format satellites the deployer has a 10mm envelope for larger deployables and antennas and is compatible with MR-FOD style PocketQubes.
Tabbed systems reduce contact points from four to two and the deployment system can be integrated onto any launch vehicle. The Albapod v2 is spaceflight proven as part of Alba Cluster 2 (Rocketlab Electron launch vehicle) and the company is now actively working with customers to launch clusters for different mission requirements.
Separation systems for microsatellites
In order to separate microsatellite-sized objects in space a variety of technical solutions are employed. The two main systems are compressed spring pushers and pyrotechnic separators.
Pyrotechnics can be hazardous and are non-reusable, though they require very little input energy and are low in weight. They are sometimes deployed as explosive bolts to decouple objects where they can provide almost instant force with a very small amount of input energy.
Systems that incorporate pyrotechnics come with the risk of creating space debris, which is an important and growing consideration for space engineers in all application areas and orbits.
They can also generate shock waves of high frequency and magnitude that can cause damage to sensitive components.
In order to avoid these issues various alternative systems have been developed that are designed to be used on different launch vehicles, where they can provide separative force that can be rapidly deployed while minimising shock.
Here are some suppliers of microsatellite launch separation systems available on the global marketplace:
CarboNIX is a family of separation systems for small satellites, it was fully qualified in space in 2019. CarboNIX uses a unique shock-free technology to reduce the risk of damaging sensitive satellite optical payloads and electronic components.
CarboNIX’s unique spring pusher system separates the satellite before the shocks are generated. This means that all shock forces can only reach the spacecraft by travelling through the linkages, and since shock forces are attenuated by joints and distance, the shock loads that reach the spacecraft are much reduced. In addition, the mechanical linkage system has a separation action up to 7 times longer than competing systems, providing the spacecraft a much gentler separation experience. All these features make CarboNIX one of the lowest-shock separation systems available.
CarboNIX is cluster-compatible and can be adapted to any launch vehicle. It is made in Germany and is not subject to export restrictions.
The ISIS Micro Satellite Separation System (M3S) is a three-point microsatellite launch adaptor, suitable for a wide range of satellite configurations and sizes. Based on an innovative hold-down and release mechanism design, and building on ISIS’s heritage of its satellite launch adaptor family, this system offers a cost-effective solution for the launch of microsatellites as either a primary or secondary payload. Not limited to any size, the M3S system is designed to adapt to the satellite and to the needs of the customer.
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