High-power, deployable solar arrays for CubeSats – with DCUBED


Episode 37 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Antonio Pedivellano, Lead Deployables Engineer, and Thomas Sinn, CEO of satsearch member company Deployables Cubed (DCUBED) on innovation in high-power solar arrays, and the benefits they can bring to CubeSats.


Episode show notes

Deployables Cubed (DCUBED) is a Munich-based NewSpace company specializing in the development of deployable components and sub-systems for small satellites. In the podcast we cover:

  • The technology limitations that make a case for high power deployable solar array solutions
  • The areas of innovation that DCUBED has brought together to bring their system to market
  • Thermal management of the high power generated
  • How deployable arrays can be scaled for use in larger satellites
  • What industry developments are capturing DCUBED’s interest in the coming years

About DCUBED’s technology

  • Even though satellites are getting smaller in size, there are higher power requirements.
  • There are two important driving factors for this; an increase in the performance of onboard computers and an increase in the generated thrust of electric propulsion thrusters.
  • Origami processes and advanced composite materials are two important aspects of DCUBED’s innovation.
  • A customer-centric development approach is adopted to succeed in the market.

About PowerCube

  • PowerCube has a symmetric square configuration with a 1U form factor.
  • Mounting recommendation: at the center of the back face of the satellite to balance the moment of inertia and reduce the drag in LEO.
  • Passive deployable radiator for thermal management.
  • Product add-on: maximum power point tracking PCB to manage solar array for a payload.
  • Customization options include: access to the top of the satellite for mounted sensors such as sun sensor.

DCUBED’s portfolio

The DCUBED PowerCube is a deployable 100W Origami Solar Array stowed within a 1U form factor. PowerCube enables extreme power-intensive space missions while requiring only minimal stowed volume during launch. It is one of the smallest, yet powerful solar array solutions on the market. It is easily resettable, easy to use, and readily available as a COTS subsystem.

The DCUBED Space Selfie Stick (D3S3) is a deployable camera system that deploys a commercial selfie camera to a distance of 80cm. It employs a DCUBED Release Nut (nD3RN) as a launch lock, which safely holds the camera module to the D3S3’s body until deployment in orbit.

The DCUBED Nano Pin Puller (nD3PP), available in Stainless Steel or Aluminum-Titanium, is a Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) based release actuator that locks sensitive equipment during launch and safely releases it on orbit. It is one of the smallest, yet powerful space-qualified HDRM solutions on the market. Moreover, it is easily field-resettable, easy to use, and readily available as a COTS part.

The DCUBED Nano Release Nut (nD3RN), available in Stainless Steel or Aluminum-Titanium, is a Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) based release actuator that secures sensitive equipment during launch and safely releases it on orbit. It is one of the smallest, yet powerful HDRM solutions on the market. Moreover, it is easily resettable, easy-to-use, and readily available as a COTS part.

Episode transcript

Please note that while we have endeavored to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.

[00:00:00] Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the space industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.

Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com

Hello there. And welcome to the episode today. I’m joined by Thomas and Antonio from German company Deployables Cubed. Deployables Cubed creates actuators and deployable mechanisms and other similar technologies for a wide range of missions in a wide range of different form factors in an application area.

So today we’re going to talk a little bit about the use of deployable solar arrays, specifically for CubeSats. Thomas, Antonio, thank you very much for being here today. Is there anything you’d like to add to that introduction?

[00:01:07] Thomas: Yeah, and we have very excited to also be in the podcast again, and it’s a very, a perfect time for us because we just passed the MRR, the manufacturer’s readiness review of our big solar array, and now gearing up for the testing and then preparing the flight mission. So a perfect timing.

[00:01:27] Antonio: Yes. Thank you very much.

[00:01:30] Hywel: Great. Thank you. Yeah, we can get into hopefully some of those details. Firstly, I think you’d like to set the scene and ask what sort of bottlenecks do CubeSat that teams face that make, make a case for using a high power deployable solar array solution. And maybe what an overview of what sorts of missions and teams do you see adopting such technology for their own uses?

[00:01:50] Thomas: Yeah, the thing is with the NewSpace transition, as I mentioned also in the other podcasts is that, yeah, we are getting into building more and more satellites that have a standardized size and therefore they can be launched cheaply built cheaply within just a couple of weeks.

But when we are going up into space, we normally need a bigger structure. And one of these key areas is to have enough power for standard computers to run these advanced missions. One nice example is that’s why we also are working on PowerCube is the need for power in communication. So building up IoT applications in space, but also a space to space and space to ground communications requires quite a lot of energy and therefore we need deployable solar arrays because the area that we have available on the CubeSat is not sufficient anymore.

Other applications we clearly see in electrical propulsion, because we see more and more thrust is coming out that require quite some kilowatts of power and that they can run continuously. We need big solar arrays to generate power.

[00:03:09] Hywel: Okay. Interesting. Yeah, that makes sense. Obviously, a piece of technology that is as complex as this in the space environment will have required you to bring together a few different areas of innovation essentially.

I wonder Antonio if you could give us an overview of what those areas are that are making, high power deployable solar array a viable option for the sorts of missions that you’ve just mentioned.

[00:03:33] Antonio: Yeah, sure. So when we started working on our high power solar array development PowerCube, We quickly realized that a conventional architectures would not working for us because normally when you have a standard off the shelf solar arrays for CubeSats.

You end up with a foldable panels that are hinged together. But that only gives you about 20, maybe 50 watts of power. But then we were aiming for 100 Watts and we realized we really had to rethink entirely the way to build it because otherwise it would have been too big. And too difficult to maneuver for this for the satellite.

So we had a first of all to use quite advanced it deployable architectures. So instead of having this foldable panels in one dimension, we are using now origami structures and using origami, we can basically create an approximately square area and we can sew it in a cube. And in addition to that, we also needed advanced materials.

So in particular, our solar array is self supported by a carbon fiber reinforced structure where we are using a dual matrix composite. So basically say type of structure that we can build all at once. So there are no mechanical articulations and it’s very rigid where the solar cells are mounted.

And it’s also very flexible along the folding pattern regarding, and basically by combining these two these two components. Origami architectures are one side and advanced the composites we achieve a very high packaging efficiency for our structure, which enables up to 100 Watts, or even more power on a simple 2U CubeSats.

[00:05:10] Hywel: Brilliant. So advanced materials and an innovative method of storing and deploying them, really interesting. And you mentioned the power rate in there being a lot higher than what is typically is often produced by the solar panels in a CubeSat.

But with that amount of power being produced, that needs to be managed in the small volume of a CubeSat 1U, 3U, or 12U, or whatever it is. Do you foresee any challenges in particularly in thermal management that needs to be solved alongside the development of the arrays themselves.

[00:05:39] Antonio: Yeah. Of course the thermal management becomes really critical when you start developing high power satellites. And if you think about it, even if CubeSats of relatively limited power, the power density that you get, it’s a lot more than big communication satellites, which means you are generating you’re dissipating a lot of more power for the same volume. So the way we are tackling this problem on PowerCube is to thermally decouple it from the satellites. So basically the heat that we generate doesn’t get conveyed to the subsystems. But at the same time, of course, it’s going to be a problem for the for the CubeSat users and especially normally they have a very power hungry payload.

It could be, for example, an electric thruster, it could be an LED or a laser for communications or just a PCB. And in that case, you would, they will generate a lot of power that needs to be dissipated. And for this reason, we started recently working on a passive deployable radiator. Which is not going to be part of PowerCube, but it will be an add-on that could be placed exactly where the customer needs it. And it’s going to be a passive design that you can simply deploy next to the power generating component and helps you radiate either way.

[00:06:53] Hywel: Dealing with the power and the thermal issues are as important as the amount of power you can generate, of course. And we see trending topics in the industry where sub-system manufacturers or the satellite integrators are looking at both areas there. They want to use more innovative payload, as you said, power hungry payloads. And in order to do that, they need to

(a) create an architecture that’s efficient so that they can reduce the power consumption that maybe they’ve had previously and (b) able to produce more power.

So that’s great, but obviously this is the space sector. The heritage, the space heritage of the component of the system is always going to be very important.

Thomas, you mentioned some of this in the beginning, but Antonio, what’s the roadmap for getting the space heritage for PowerCube and what kind of assuming, everything goes well, bringing it to market. What kind of customization options are you going to be able to offer within that space heritage envelope?

[00:07:44] Antonio: Yeah. As Thomas mentioned before we recently passed the MRR. So right now we are building our engineering model that we go through all the environmental testing campaign later this summer, just to to demonstrate that it’s going to work as intended in the right environment. And after that we have an IOD mission planned in 2023.

It’s a mission with Cal-Poly in California. And they are basically developing a three-year satellite for a space solar power demonstration. So basically they have this three year satellite and they have a very powerful LED.

And they want to demonstrate energy transfer from space to earth using light. And of course, for that, that we need our solar array and they are also developing all the payloads. We also have a propulsion system on board. So we were awarded a NASA launch for this project. So we basically already have a launch. And this plan, as I mentioned before for the end of 2023 So we’re really excited about that. And we are really looking forward to our demo.

[00:08:44] Thomas: Yeah. And I think I also want to jump in here. Because one of the things that we want to do quite early on is to get customers involved that use this technology because only if we make it based on customer requirements, we can be insured there’s also a market for it. We did it with our actuators, with our selfie stick and now with a PowerCube as well. So here’s also a call out to anyone that’s still interested in flying this technology or needing it just get in touch with us. Great.

[00:09:21] Hywel: Thank you. Yeah. And then just to ask about, just as I mentioned about the customization options that you are intended to offer. Obviously within, as I say, within the confines of their space heritage, you’re able to acquire, but also as Thomas mentioned, based on customer requirements

[00:09:35] Antonio: so we have a couple of options in mind. So first of all, the solar array is meant to be scaled. Which means that we can adjust the power that we generate to the customer’s needs.

And that, of course, I will say, make any smaller, it’s very easy but we can also grow, I would say up to 20% and more powerful. In addition to that we are developing maximum power point tracking PCB as an add-on to our system. So basically using this, you can basically manage the performance of your solar array to the need of your payload, which means basically always getting maximum power from the solar array.

So these will not be part of the main product because sometimes MPPT is, are on the electrical power system on the satellite. But we think it’s very useful to provide it as an add-on if needed. And in addition to that we are also thinking about doing some ways to access the top of the satellite for mounted sensors.

Because as you can expect, we have this pretty big solid solar array that is covering entirely the sun. And sometimes people may want sun sensors or other sensors on the top face, and we want to provide a way for people to easily do that. So this will be, I will say the main customization options that we have in mind at the moment, but of course, like we’re always open to feedback from the customers to see what is really interesting for them. And if we can actually accommodate additional features. 

[00:10:56] Hywel: Brilliant. Yeah. There, the position of the sun sensors obviously, this is a key challenge. So that’s a great that you’re thinking about that. And you mentioned the scalability of the system there, but with the PowerCube is stored, I believe in a one U for form factor.

How do you foresee it being used in larger CubeSats such as 12U or 16U systems, particularly we’re thinking, balancing out moments of inertia and other such considerations that need to be balanced when, where payloads are typically stored?

[00:11:24] Antonio: So the form factor of PowerCube is naturally, like when you because it’s a symmetric structure, so it really needs square configuration. 

Now, if you look at the bigger satellite our suggestion will be always to Mount it at the center of the back face so that you don’t get cause moment of intertia. Which means that basically during the accommodation of the payloads, you basically have to put the PCBs on the two sides which is also partially what is done by people already for similar systems and these best that allows you to balance the moment of inertia.

Also you have to keep in mind that you have this large deployed area, which means that, especially if you’re flying in low earth orbit. You basically to get quite a bit of drag. And so it makes sense to have the solar array on the back face of the satellites. So it gets naturally perpendicular to the velocity vector along your orbit. So it stablizes it and also in a way acts as a deorbiting device.

[00:12:20] Hywel: I think that was most of the technical questions there. Just maybe a final question to Thomas first, obviously, Antonio, feel free to, to share your thoughts. Tell us, what are you most excited about seeing happen in the industry in the next few years?

I think DCUBED has been involved in a number of quite interesting missions. And there’s a lot that you guys are working on because of the nature of the technology you create this quite widely applicable potentially. And yeah. What’s next for DCUBED itself?

[00:12:48] Thomas: Yeah. I think it’s the best time to be in the space industry right now, since the the moon era in the sixties, because right now we see so much development all over the world and what has been planned over last year’s is now coming to it’s fruitful launch. Because when you see how many companies are alone here in Germany, in Europe that are developing launches that are having the possibility of bringing satellites cheaply into orbit.

It will open up so many opportunities for in-orbit demonstration for really exciting missions, who’d be in low earth orbit going to the moon or going to mass or a deep space. And that’s the exciting thing of being a component and subsystem supplier like the DcubeD, because we are actually on, can be part of these exciting mission.

So we’re not building constellation where we are just staying in the low earth orbit, but we are supporting the companies that are doing that. They are building up their IoT constellations, their earth observation constellations, but then we are also a part of missions that are dropping a Rover on the surface of the moon, to prepare for the next man and the first woman on the moon.

But then we are also having projects where we go into deep space where looking at asteroids there’s much more coming in the next years because a lot of companies out there which are looking at more out there business cases, And directly for us next to the moon mission and the deep space mission, we are very excited for actually launching our selfie stick again in October and also then launching a PowerCube next year.

And then also doing some more radiator development. And trying to get on a much more missions. Our goal at the end is to be, to have our products on every space mission to go everywhere where a human race is going into space.

[00:14:59] Hywel: Fantastic. That’s great. Yeah. As you say, I think the analogy with the micrologist technologies is really interesting. That’s a key enabling part of the industry. And I think the sort of work that you guys are doing by enabling small satellites to have increased power and by giving them more functionality through deployable systems.

And yeah, obviously you’ve mentioned the wide applicability of the technologies that you create to all sorts of different types of missions are also enabling factors in themselves. So best of luck with all these missions and although the progress at the COVID. And thank you very much for sharing today, your insights on the topics that we discussed.

[00:15:35] Thomas: Yeah. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity. It also created pressure and I cannot wait for the next time with the new developments that we are doing.

[00:15:44] Antonio: Thanks a lot.

[00:15:45] Hywel: Absolutely great! Thank you, Thomas. Thank you Antonio. And to all our listeners out there. Thank you very much for spending time with us today on the Space Industry podcast.

And then if you’d like to find out more about, DcubeD and all the work they’re doing then please look out for them on the internet. We’ll also share links to some of these satsearch pages and content on in the show notes. As Thomas mentioned, please do get in touch.

If you have any potential use cases or ideas to discuss how the use of greater power solar array technologies could be implemented in your own services or missions. And we will speak to you very soon on the Space Industry podcast.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space Industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoyed today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind-the-scenes insights from private space businesses.

In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media if you have any questions or comments. Stay up to date. Please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google play store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.

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