What is the CubeSat PCB Standard?

Sometimes, things are not what they appear to be. This is not a revolutionary concept, to be sure; yet, it is one that most of us learn by experience rather than handed-down adage. As for me, I learned this general truth while suffering a significant blow to my ego in the presence of peers. Someone had acquired a Rubik’s Cube, and after examining its simple structure, I decided that I could easily and quickly solve it. After what seemed like hours, I finally relented and admitted that the complexity of the pattern was beyond my ability to decipher. I certainly felt smaller that day, but I was also smarter as a result of this experience.

Interestingly enough, one of the most high-tech aerospace platforms in use today, the CubeSat, exhibits the same simplicity of structure as a Rubik’s Cube, but can be quite complex. Since CubeSats are satellites, the boards that comprise them must adhere to the same aerospace industry standards for PCB manufacturing as for other space vehicles. However, there are certain CubeSat PCB Standards and requirements for developing these unique aerospace mission solutions. Before detailing these, let’s first explore CubeSats more explicitly.

What are CubeSats?

Dimensional diagram for CubeSat base unit

1U CubeSat Diagram

The basic unit for any CubeSat, the 1U shown above, has dimensions of 10cm (width) X 10cm (depth) X 10cm (height). Although, the height may be extended the x-y plane is typically constant. Any extensions to the basic architecture must adhere to defined requirements. In short, CubeSats are very small satellites designed to carry miniature payloads. Their size and formal architecture provide many advantages. For example, many satellites with individual missions can be launched simultaneously, which saves time and cost as compared to larger satellites. Smaller size also means less weight and lower power requirements, while standardization provides the opportunity to use mass-produced COTS components, which is cost-effective. Most interesting; however, is the thrust to use CubeSats to go deeper into space. For more interesting facts about CubeSats, check out https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/834/10-things-cubesats-going-farther/.

CubeSat Requirements and Standards

The idea for CubeSats and their early development was launched from Cal Poly. Dr. Jordi Puig Suari of Cal Poly and Bob Twiggs of Stanford started a program to enable graduate students to design, build and operate satellites. This effort has since blossomed into the student-run PolySat research laboratory. As most research and development and launches were done in academia until 2013, the CubeSat Standard, which provides the basic requirements for CubeSat development, was as well. These requirements are listed below.

CubeSat Requirements

  • General Requirements
  • Mechanical Requirements
  • Electrical Requirements
  • Operational Requirements
  • Testing Requirements

For more detailed information for each requirement see the CubeSat Design Specifications document. 

CubeSat PCB Standards

When designing, manufacturing, and testing circuit boards for deployment aboard CubeSats, the same regulations, standards and considerations as for commercial satellites apply. This includes understanding the deployment environment. And as communication capabilities, both internal and external, are essential for any satellite mission, designing for maximal PCB manufacturing of these systems is critical. For highly sensitive or top-secret missions other considerations; such as data security may be preeminent.

Typical PCBAs that can be found in CubeSats are digital control systems (MCU or FPGA), analog front ends or AFEs, various sensor boards, telecommunication PCBAs, and power delivery circuit boards. Due to the size of CubeSats, their internal circuitry can be dense and complex. These attributes coupled with high functionality requirements lend CubeSat PCBA design and board interconnectivity to the utilization of PC/104, the “de facto” standard for embedded computer systems. Typical configurations are given below.

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PC/104 Configurations

  • Standalone Module 

Here the modules are independent bus boards that can be stacked to conserve space and interconnected as desired.

  • Pseudo Components

As pseudo components, each PC/104 module acts as a separate component or functional pseudo-device. These can then be interconnected using application-specific panels.

Although PC/104 is not a regulatory requirement, it does provide a standard that has been adopted by industry and if used should make your CubeSat development more efficient.

Tempo‘s Custom Avionics for PCB Manufacturing Service
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  • Sources components from the most reputable suppliers in the industry to reduce procurement time and help with component security.
  • Performs multiple automated inspections during PCB assembly to ensure PCB quality for prototyping.
  • Standard quality testing, including X-ray and inline AOI.

The utilization of CubeSats for aerospace missions is increasing rapidly in conjunction with the explosion in commercial aerospace development. To take advantage of this, you should be aware of the requirements for design, manufacturing, testing, and operation, as well as leverage available standard technology. Key to your development is the building of your boards, and Tempo Automation possesses the experience and facilities to ensure the highest quality and fastest turnaround for your CubeSat PCBAs.

And to help you get started on the best path, we furnish information for your DFM checks and enable you to easily view and download DRC files. If you’re an Altium Designer or Cadence Allegro user, you can simply add these files to your PCB design software. For Mentor Pads or other design packages, we furnish DRC information in other CAD formats and Excel.

If you are ready to have your design manufactured, try our quote tool to upload your CAD and BOM files. If you want more information on the CubeSat PCB standard or requirements for developing these boards, contact us.

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