Satellite radar cross-sections is a complex function of satellite structure, design, materials, instantaneous attitude, (radar) frequency, polarization, and if has moving parts, configuration, just to name a few.

Assume I've written a similar paragraph for visible, NIR, and thermal IR, and whatever other electromagnetic probes are used for satellite tracking.

But I am wondering, for a generic 1U cubesat built from COTS (commercial, off the shelf) cubesat parts, do they end up being sufficiently reliably tracked to get TLEs good enough to keep track of where they are, establish regular communications, and avoid collisions?

I am assuming the answer would be yes, since the 1U is a popular standard for experimental satellites, and there are several businesses with plans to deploy hundreds more 1U cubesats collective hopes to deploy hundreds of cubesats in the future.

Of course one could imagine a "science project" called stealth-cube, 3D printed out of free space impedance matched resistive polymer, with plastic optics to bring sunlight into small, oddly-shaped organic photovoltaics, so let's not include extremes.

But in general are 1U cubesats sufficiently detectable to get at least minimally usefully predictive public TLEs, updated retularly?

  • $\begingroup$ One way to attack this question would be to get a list of all 1U cubesats ever deployed in space, and just analyze their public TLE histories. Right now I don't even know how to find that list. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 16 '17 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think any businesses plan to deploy hundreds of 1U cubesats. All the ones I'm aware of are using 3U or larger form-factors, with deployable solar arrays that further increase the radar cross-section. $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Feb 17 '17 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ @pericynthion you forgot that deploying cubesats for other people is a business. Charging circa 100k per pop is certainly business-like behavior. n addition to existing companies (Nanoracks for example) I think there are world-wide at least a half-dozen future business ventures based on putting cubesats, including 1U cubesats, into orbit. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 17 '17 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ Nobody is doing hundreds of 1Us. A couple of dozen a year at most for the foreseeable future. I don't forget, this is my industry :) $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Feb 17 '17 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ @pericynthion OK I'll adjust the wording. I think if one adds up the number of 1U's that each individual business hopes to deploy over the next ten years, it would reach 'hundreds'. Of course this double-counting, or multiple-counting the same potential customers, but do you think over the next ten years, the number of 1U's deployed will not reach "hundreds"? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 17 '17 at 1:24

1U cubesats are difficult to resolve, but they are in the minimum range of detectability. The difficulty lies not in the detection of said objects, but in the identification of them, as they all look pretty much alike. JSpOC has a list of recommendations. NASA has also stated that tracking the cubesats is easy.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure it's a somewhat qualified "easy". A non-operational 1U with no extra surfaces or antenna may be a bigger challenge than the doves shown in the NASA article. The JSpOC document is interesting, and gives a little insight to issues to consider. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 17 '17 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ I've heard some years ago that 10 cm is about the resolution that JSpOC can manage easily, which is the size of a cubesat. Still, I don't doubt that one could be hidden if one tried easily enough. $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Feb 17 '17 at 15:31

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