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2007 4th International Conference on Electrical and Electronics Engineering (ICEEE 2007)


Finite Element Analysis and Design of a CubeSat Class Picosatellite Structure

C. Quiroz-Garfias, G. Silva-Navarro and H. Rodriguez-Cortes Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Avanzados del I.P.N. Departamento de Ingenieria Electrica - Area Mecatronica Av. Instituto Politecnico Nacional No.2580, C.P. 07360, Mexico D.F., Mexico. cquiroz @cinvestav.mx, gsilva@cinvestav.mx, hrodriguez@ cinvestav.mx
Abstract-This paper focuses on the mechanical design of a low-cost picosatellite structure which complies with the CubeSat program design specifications. Being the quasi-static loads bigger than any other expected load, we consider failures due to column bending as a design criteria. The overall design is validated using finite element methods. The satellite structure is treated as a combination of beams and thin plate elements. The mechanical design process leads to three different prototypes which comply with the dimensional and structural requirements of the CubeSat program. The natural frequencies of the prototypes are computed numerically through finite element based methods. Keywords- Beam, CubeSat, finite element method, plate, picosatellite, structure.

I. INTRODUCTION During the last two decades there has been a gradual tendency to reconfigurate Earth-orbiting architectures from the single large satellite architecture to constellations of a number of small satellites. Constellations of small satellites promise better mission flexibility and success by distributing the tasks and by reducing the possibility of a catastrophic failure. If one small satellite of the constellation fails, others can continue operating until a replacement is launched. A fast growing small satellite industry has enabled increasingly capable and cost-effective space missions by embracing reduced requirements and integrating commercial technology. This growing small satellite interest has also spread throughout the academic research and has resulted in nanosatellites (< 10 kg) and picosatellites (< 1 kg) with an emphasis on decreasing the size through application of advanced technologies while trading off capability. In this framework, the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) at San Luis Obispo together with the Space Systems Development Laboratory (SSDL) at Stanford University developed the CubeSat program whose aim is to provide a standard low-cost platform to design a class of picosatellites, called CubeSats [1]. The main contributions of this program are the development of a standard deployment mechanism -the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-Pod)- and creation of launch opportunities, by profiting the relative low cost of being treated as secondary payload, for developers previously unable to access space. The standardization leads to reduction in development time and cost as well as imposes restraints in size and mass. Although many institutions have developed satellites of this class (see, e.g. [2]), there is a few literature devoted to the

mechanical design (see, e.g., [3]) and modeling of CubeSat's mechanical structure. Almost all the publications are mission oriented or describe each subsystem in a general sense. Moreover, a CubeSat kit has been developed by Pumpkin, Inc. [4], which is the best option for those who do not want to be involved in the design of the structure and the power supply subsystems. However, this is not suitable for lowbudget developers. This paper presents the mechanical design and finite element analysis of a CubeSat class picosatellite structure using a mixed approach between classical and finite element design methods. The paper is organized as follows. In Section II the CubeSat design specifications are presented. In Section III the load types, design considerations and design methodology are described. In Section IV is presented the stress analysis of the main structural elements as well as the determination of the natural frequencies. Finally, in Section V some concluding remarks are given.

The design and testing requirements which have to be satisfied for every satellite that pretends to be launched by the P-Pod are stated in [5]. Those of interest for this paper can be subdivided in two categories: dimensional and mass requirements and structural requirements. The first one states that each CubeSat must have a cube shape with a nominal lenght of 100 mm per side and also a maximum weight of 1 kg. The second one specifies some design criteria which have to be met in order to avoid launch failures like jam, coldwelding, reduce wear and provide electrical isolation between CubeSats and the P-Pod. Aluminum alloys 7075 or 6061-T6 are suggested for the main structure although it is possible to use other materials with similar thermal expansion coefficient. In addition, in [6], [7] the guidelines for vibration qualification tests are presented. Each satellite must be submitted to sine sweep tests in the overall range of frequencies up to 2 kHz, as well as random vibration tests with some specific power spectral density profiles. The power spectral density profiles depend on the launch vehicle. A more detailed study of the posible environment inside the P-Pod and Test Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (Test-Pod) is presented in [8].
IEEE Catalog Number: 07EX1762C ISBN: 1-4244-1166-1 Library of Congress: 2007923398

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2007 4th International Conference on Electrical and Electronics Engineering (ICEEE 2007)
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A. Load Types Three types of mechanical loads are identified through the whole launching process: static, quasistatic and dynamic (though the first and the second are commonly grouped). These are result of different accelerations on the launch vehicle all along. As stated before, each launch vehicle user guide specifies its particular vibration and acceleration levels (see, e.g. [9]-[12]).

Table I: Properties of the aluminum alloy 6061 -T6a Material property Magnitude
Modulus of elasticity Tensile Yield Strength
Poisson's ratio

Density Coefficient of thermal expansionb


Source www.matweb.com Typical, average over 20-100 C range.

68.9 GPa 276 MPa 0.33 2700 kg/m3 23.6 x 10 -6 c-1

After material selection, a first design was obtained and analyzed. In order to determine the maximum stress due to static loads in each part of the structure, individual analytic and B. Design Considerations finite element based analysis were performed. Fig. 2 shows the assembled and exploding isometric views of the first design. The following considerations were used in the design: In the vertical arrangement the elements from 1 to 4 are . Maximum static acceleration of 10 g. in a state of compression, whereas the others are not directly . Each CubeSat will have the maximum specified mass of loaded -that is why those do not directly contribute to the 1 kg. strength-. Opposite to this, in the horizontal arrangement the Now, we present some design guidelines. Each CubeSat elements from 5 to 7 and 9 provide the strength. must have a mass of 1 kg and according to the literature 30% According to classical mechanics, elements from 1 to 4 are of this is allocated for the structure. The main goal of the columns and the others are connected thin plates. Both of them design is to obtain a sufficiently stiff structure which supports would fail by buckling instead of compression -because of its own weight, the components inside and the weight of two their dimensions and loading conditions-. The critical load is CubeSats. Whereas it has to be as light as possible and easy defined as the axial compression load in which the combinato manufacture and assemble at a low cost. tion of stresses due to compression and bending would result in the element failure. Perhaps the most important consideration C. Methodology in failure by buckling is to determine the boundary conditions, First, the extreme loading conditions of a CubeSat were i.e., the support conditions. The elements were considered identified. Fig. l.a and l.b describe the maximum and mini- simply supported which is the worst case because the lateral mum loading conditions inside the P-Pod, respectively. Be- constraints were neglected. cause the position of each CubeSat into the P-Pod is not Finite element simulations were performed in order to verify known, the worst case was considered. According to the pre- the analytic results. The type and size of the elements and the viously stated considerations the worst static case is described constraints selected must describe as much as possible the by a load of 294.3 N applied to the lower CubeSat on the physical behavior in order to get valid results. Therefore, it vertical arrangement. Note that in the horizontal arrangement is important to be aware of the capabilities of each element each CubeSat is loaded with 98.1 N. needed as well as try to reduce the complexity of the problem. We proceed now to the material selection. There is a variety Hence, one-dimensional beam and two-dimensional plate finite of materials and compounds that might meet the requirements elements were used with the same constraints stated before. of the thermal expansion coefficient, however, the cheaper and Since the picosatellite shape is quite restrained by the sort of commercial is the aluminum 6061-T6 -commercial specification, only slightly changes could be made to our availability was the main reason of choosing it-. Table I shows first model. Two lighter models were similarly obtained and some of the principal properties of this aluminum alloy. analyzed. The second model differs from the first one in the

Figure 1: CubeSat loading conditions. a) vertical arrangement. b) horizontal arrangement.

Figure 2: Assembled and exploding isometric views of the first


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Authorized licensed use limited to: CINVESTAV IPN. Downloaded on October 30, 2008 at 13:11 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply.

IEEE Catalog Number: 07EX1762C ISBN: 1-4244-1166-1 Library of Congress: 2007923398

2007 4th International Conference



Electrical and Electronics Engineering (ICEEE 2007)

B. Plates Although the real plates have bends and are slightly different in each design, those were simplified as if it were squared plates of 100 mm per side with thickness equal to 1.25 mm. Also simply supported boundary conditions were considered in each of the 100 mm edges. Moreover, the whole load is supported by the columns in the vertical arrangement and four plates provide the strength in the horizontal direction. Because of this, each plate is uniaxialy loaded with a quarter of the total IV. ANALYTICAL AND SIMULATION RESULTS load, i.e., 24.525 N. The analytic and finite element simulation of the critical All the methods which will be mentioned in this paper can loads are shown in Table V. As it can be seen, the applied load be found, for instance, in [13]. The finite element modelling is well below the critical load. A safety factor of 202.577 is criteria can be found in [14]. The first individual analysis of obtained. It might seem to be overdesigned, however, it must stress is presented and then stresses and natural frequencies resist also the mass of the components inside. are determined for the overall structure. Table V: Critical loads of plates Results (kN) Simulation (kN) Analytic A. Columns
cross sectional area of the columns at the four parallel edges, whereas the third does not have any column but only plates assembled with uniform thickness and small supports at the corners in contact. Finally, joints had to be designed in order to guarantee that the elements will remain joined. Also it allows to make the important modelling assumption that surfaces in contact in the beginning will remain in contact all along.

Although some geometrical characteristics like chamfers and fillets must be met by the columns according to the structural specification, simplifications were taken into account in the analysis and simulations but not in the prototypes. The columns of the first prototype were considered to have a squared cross section of 8.5 cm per side. On the other hand, the columns of the second design were considered to have a constant pentagonal cross section. Both columns have a total and effective length of 113.5 cm. It is important to note that in the latter the loading point differs from the geometrical center. Classic Euler and J. B. Johnson methods were used for the analysis of the squared cross section columns -because there is not a specific boundary between short and large columns-, as well as generalized Euler and classic Euler methods for the analysis of the pentagonal cross section columns. The analytic and simulation results of both columns are shown in Tables II and III, respectively, in which a load equal to 73.575 N was applied because the total load is supported by four columns. As it could be noted, the simulation results match those obtained by means of the classic Euler method. Moreover, the applied load is below the critical load in the worst case of both kinds of columns. Table IV shows the safety factors of both columns considering the lowest critical load in each one.
Table II: Critical loads of the squared cross section columns Simulation (kN) Analytic Results (kN)
Euler 22.967
J. B. Johnson 15.612



C. Joints Screw joints were considered. These are normally subject to several kinds of stresses. Here it has been considered that only four elements support the total load -either columns or plates depending on the arrangement- and also the loads are applied in a perpendicular direction to their cross section. Hence, it could be considered that the only state of stress needed to ensure that the elements will remain in contact is the axial tensile stress in the screws, i.e., shear stress on screws and stresses on plates can be neglected by a proper selection of

The maximum axial tensile stress is calculated in order to tighten the screws at a tension known as pre-load. This ensures that, if the joint failed, then it would be due to a failure on the screw but not in the plates. Taking into account the guidelines suggested by [15], [16], standard steel M3 screws were selected such that a maximum tensile load of 563.455 N is obtained when a safety factor of 4 is considered. D. Stresses and natural frequencies in the structure Due to the complex analysis of the assembled structure with all its mechanical components, the finite element method was used to verify and validate the static and dynamic specifications. Beam and plate finite elements with six degrees of freedom in each node are suitable for this purpose, because those allow three-dimensional deformations. Simply supported boundary conditions as well as an axial compression load of 73.575 N were applied at the lower and higher points of the columns respectively. Moreover, displacements in its cross section plane and axial rotation were constrained to be zero. The distribution of the Von Mises stresses is shown in Fig. 3.a, which result in a safety factor of 53.28. It is remarkable that under this loading condition a critical load of 29041 N would result in a buckling analysis, although this would be wrong because leads to stresses over the yield stress.


Table III: Critical loads of the pentagonal cross section columns

Analytic Results (kN) Euler (p :p)a Euler (p 2.086 5.770 alp p1= 1.574 mm
Column Squared cross section Pentagonal cross section


Simulation (kN)


Table IV: Safety factors of columns.

Safety Factor
212.201 28.360

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2007 4th International Conference on Electrical and Electronics Engineering (ICEEE 2007)


0 200 400 600 800

Figure 3: a) Von Mises stress b) 1st mode of vibration

Frequency [Hz]







Figure 5: Spectrum of acceleration measured in a sine-sweep test.

The natural frequencies in the 0 to 2,000 Hz bandwidth are shown in Table VI, whereas the first mode of vibration is depicted in Fig. 3.b. The symmetry of the structure causes that some natural frequencies are almost equal.
Table VI: Natural frequencies of the structure in the 0 to 2 kHz range Mode Natural Frequency (Hz) I Mode Natural Frequency (Hz)
1 2 3 4 5 6

Table VII: Total mass of the prototypes.

Design 1 2 3 Mass (kg) 0.317 0.270 0.236

764.06 840.97 973.02 973.02 999.63 1104.40

7 8 9 10 11 12

1635.70 1635.70 1866.20 1866.20 1912.00 1961.30

A Testbed was designed in order to validate the previously obtained results (see Fig. 4). Fig. 5 shows the spectrum of the acceleration measured in the top face of the structure, in which the real natural frequencies are identified by means of experimental modal analysis.

Figure 6: Prototypes.
[1] Cubesat project webpage. [Online]. Available: http://cubesat.atl. [2] Cassat project. [Online]. Available: http://cassat.acfr.usyd.edu.au [3] A. Bettridge, "Cassat structural subsystem," Final Year Thesis, University of Sydney, 2004. kit Available: [4] Cubesat webpage. [Online]. http:// www.cubesatkit.com/index.html [5] A. Toorian, CubeSat Design Specification (CDS), 9th ed., CubeSat Program, 2005. [Online]. Available: http://cubesat.atl.calpoly.edu /media/Documents/Developers/CDS%20R9.pdf [6] J. Brown, Test Pod User's Guide, 6th ed., CubeSat Program, 2006. [Online]. Available: http://cubesat.atl.calpoly.edu
[7] A. Toorian, DNEPR Safety Compliance Requirements, 1st ed., CubeSat Program, 2004. [Online]. Available: http://cubesat.atl.


The mechanical desing of three low-cost picosatellite structures, which comply with the CubeSat program specification was developed usig a mixed approach between classical and finite element methods. Two of the resulting designs have less mass than the budgeted (see Table VII). An analytic finite element analyisis of a simplified structure is currently being performed and dynamic tests will be done in order to experimentally validate the designed prototypes.


Kosmotras, 2001. [10] Rockot user's guide, 4th ed., EUROCKOT Launch Services Providers, 2004. [11] Pegasus user's guide, 5th ed., Orbital Sciences Corporation, 2000. [12] Taurus user's guide, 4th ed., Orbital Sciences Corporation, 2006. [13] R. L. Mott, Diseno de elementos de maquinas, 2nd ed., 1995. [14] S. S. Rao, The Finite Element Method in Engineering, 4th ed., 2005. [15] R. L. Norton, Diseno de maquinas, 1st ed. [16] A. Pytel and F. L. Singer, Resistencia de materiales, 4th ed., 1994.

[8] V. Bashbush, "Characterization of the internal and external environments of the cubesat p-pod and test pod," Master's thesis, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 2004. [9] DNEPR Space Launch System, 2nd ed., International Space Company

Figure 4: Testbed

1-4244-1166-1/07/$25.00 2007 IEEE.


Authorized licensed use limited to: CINVESTAV IPN. Downloaded on October 30, 2008 at 13:11 from IEEE Xplore. Restrictions apply.

IEEE Catalog Number: 07EX1762C ISBN: 1-4244-1166-1 Library of Congress: 2007923398