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Satellite Missions Catalogue

ALBus (Advanced eLectrical Bus)

Last updated:Dec 19, 2018



Technology and Research

Quick facts


Mission typeNon-EO
Launch date16 Dec 2018
End of life date17 Dec 2018

ALBus (Advanced eLectrical Bus) CubeSat Demonstration Mission

Spacecraft     Design Evolution, Development Issues, and Solutions     Flight assembly and test    Launch
Mission Status     References

NASA /GRC (Glenn Research Center) has a long history related to the development of advanced power technology for space applications. This expertise covers the breadth of energy generation (photovoltaics, thermal energy conversion, etc.), energy storage (batteries, fuel cell technology, etc.), power management and distribution, and power systems architecture and analysis. Such advanced technology is now being developed for small satellite and cubesat applications and could have a significant impact on the longevity and capabilities of these missions.

The objective of the ALBus 3U CubeSat mission is to act as a technology demonstrator with an advanced, digitally controlled electrical power system capable of distributing 100 W of power. Typically, CubeSats operate in the 5 - 20 W power range. A higher power distribution capability opens more opportunities for CubeSat mission payloads, experiments, and functions, including propulsion and advanced communication. ALBus is not capable of generating 100 W continuously, so it uses SAs (Solar Arrays) to store electrical power in batteries until enough power has been stored to test distributing 100 W of electrical power. To reduce the amount of time to charge the batteries, additional deployable SAs were added to the design. This drove the second mission goal, which is to leverage the SMAs (Shape Memory Alloys) being developed at Glenn as a way to deploy the SAs. 1) 2)

Flying and operating CubeSats have been a risky endeavor with a 40% failure rate of university class CubeSats. 3) Of those failures, less than 10% can be attributed to the mechanisms, however, 33% fail for unknown reasons. 4) A way to improve on this failure rate is to increase the reliability of the deployment mechanisms. Common deployment methods consist of nichrome burn wires to burn through a strap or tether. This can fail by the burn wire shorting out prior to burning through the release strap or the strap getting tangled upon deployment. Another technique comprises of breakable links made of plastic retaining bars that are heated and burned. While the latter is advantageous in securing the hardware from vibration damages, both methods employ consumables and do not allow direct testing of the actual flight hardware since parts are destroyed during the deployment and new hardware is needed to reconfigure the spacecraft into the stowed configuration.

The deployment mechanisms designed for the ALBus are an attempt to eliminate all deployment consumables (or even human factors like winding strap wire) to allow a reliable and resettable means to deploy structures on a CubeSat. In this work, SMAs are used to deploy SAs and allow them to be functioned and tested on the ground with the same hardware that will be used during the flight mission.

SMAs have been used in various applications in the past, including in space. CubeSats are a great way to verify and increase the capabilities of state-of-the-art SMA technology. SMAs have many advantages that can be utilized by CubeSats. In addition to being lightweight with a small footprint, SMAs are not pyrotechnics, produce low shock, do not create debris, and can be designed to be resettable. As part of the ALBus CubeSat technology development, two SMA forms were used. First, novel thermally activated SMAs with higher transition temperatures (compared to commercially available counterparts) were used for the R&R (Retention and Release) mechanism. Second, novel mechanically-activated SMAs (superelastic alloys) were used as deployment springs to specifically deploy ALBus’ SAs and transmit the electrical power from the arrays.

Design requirements: The design requirements for the mechanisms are divided up into three categories: CubeSat standards, requirements specific to the ALBus mission and design, and mechanism specific requirements. The CubeSat specific requirements come from the CubeSat design specification 5) and the CubeSat deployer interface control document. 6) These requirements provide several sizing constraints such as keep-in zones for exterior dimensions, mass, and center of gravity. Other constraints include restrictions on creating space debris and use of pyrotechnics. These specifications also provide guidance on design environments. For example, they require using the launch random vibration environment in GSFC-STD-7000A if environments from the launch service provider are unavailable or if the launch provider is unknown while designing the CubeSat.

The ALBus mission’s needs, goals, and configuration drove several of the SA deployment mechanism’s performance and design requirements. The ALBus design is configured to use four deployable SA panels with seven of the ultra-triple-junction type solar cells installed on a FR-4 PCB (Printed Circuit Board) substrate. These deployable SAs run the length of the 340 mm long CubeSat and are to be deployed along one of the short 100 mm sides of the CubeSat. This deployment configuration was chosen since the ALBus does not have an attitude control and determination system. It is designed to utilize gravity gradient masses installed on the ends of the deployable SAs to eventually point the CubeSat radiator down toward Earth. The final deployment angle was determined to be 135° from the stowed configuration for optimal power generation. However, a power analysis has shown that a 90° deployment angle is sufficient to recharge the batteries with acceptable power generation degradation.

The underlying goal for the ALBus mission is to design improved and reliable SA deployment mechanisms to reduce mission failures. This drove the design goals for the mechanism to be resettable in order to test and retest the actual flight hardware prior to launch. Reliability also drove the design goal to release all four SAs with one mechanism to minimize failure points. The ALBus mission chose to use new SMAs being developed at the NASA Glenn Research Center over traditional deployment methods. Finally, as the mechanism designs matured the desire to pass the electrical power from the solar cells on the deployable arrays through the SMAs was added in an effort to save the mass of a wiring harness.

The final mechanism’s design converged on a two-stage SMA actively driven pin-puller type mechanism used to retain the arrays during ascent and release them in orbit (R&R mechanism). Once released, a passively driven SMA hinge mechanism, one for each of the four arrays, deploys each array to the desired deployment angle. To complete the designs, several specialized requirements were added specific to the R&R and hinge to ensure the desired functionally. NASA’s mechanism design and development requirements specification, NASA-STD-5017 revision A, was used as a design guide and drove several of the performance requirements on the force and torque margin, mechanism design, and material selection.




No space debris shall be created at any point in the mission.


Pyrotechnics shall not be permitted.


The 3U CubeSat shall be 100.0±0.1 mm wide. (X and Y dimensions) and be 340.5±0.3 mm tall. (Z dimension)


The only CubeSat structure that can contact the deployer are 8.5 mm wide rails and nothing can cross them.


Components shall not exceed 10 mm normal to the surface of the 100 mm cube sides.


ALBus mechanisms are to be designed to increase reliability; e.g. releasing all four deployable SAs simultaneously.


The ALBus mechanisms are to be designed using SMAs.


The ALBus mechanisms shall be resettable so the flight hardware can be tested prior to flight and without disassembly of the CubeSat


The ALBus mechanisms shall be designed to structurally retain the deployable SAs during all mission phases prior to being commanded to release.


Upon command receipt, and only when desired, the R&R shall release the deployable SAs.


The R&R shall be designed to accept and operate by electrical power provided by the ALBus electrical power system which is 6 volt limited and
3.0 amps maximum.


Upon command and only when desired, the hinge shall deploy the deployable SAs to the deployed state and prevent any detrimental damage
to the deployable SAs, any other CubeSat structure, or to mission operations.


The hinge shall allow the deployable SAs to deploy to 90°-135° from the stowed configuration.


The hinge shall be designed to structurally support the deployable SAs during all mission phases.


The hinge shall allow two separate paths to conduct power from the deployable SAs to the spacecraft.


The ALBus mechanisms are to use NASA-STD-5017 rev A as a guide to design the mechanisms.

Table 1: Mechanisms key driving requirements summary



The main goals of the ALBus mission are:

• Provide 100 W capable power management system

• Demonstrate regulated high power bus

• On-orbit demonstration of technologies required for 100 W system

• Power system efficiency ≥ 85%

• EPS shall fit in 1U volume (10 x 10 x 10 cm) or less

• CubeSat shall not exceed a mass of 4.0 kg

• Exhibit solar array mechanisms utilizing shape memory alloy materials.

Figure 1 shows the overall architecture of the ALBus CubeSat which illustrates the mechanisms’ location.

Figure 1: ALBus CubeSat architecture (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 1: ALBus CubeSat architecture (image credit: NASA/GRC)

Design summary of the R&R (Retention and Release) mechanism:

The R&R final design consists of a two-stage activated mechanism. The first stage is a pin-puller device driven by an SMA linear actuator. The second stage is a hook and pin design that is released by a compression spring loaded plate riding on plain bearings. The operation and design of the mechanism is discussed in the following paragraphs. Figure 2 and Figure 3 illustrate details of the R&R component parts that go along with the description. Table 2 summarizes the functional performance capability specifications and requirements. These specifications are driven to have positive margins per design guidance from NASA-STD-5017. 7)

Figure 2: R&R component parts and design (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 2: R&R component parts and design (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 3: R&R mass estimate and SMA linear actuator details (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 3: R&R mass estimate and SMA linear actuator details (image credit: NASA/GRC)

ALBus’s initial temperature requirements for a safe SA deployment were set to be >100ºC, which exceeded any commercial alloy capability. Therefore, the linear actuator consists of an alloy with an atomic composition of Ni19.5Ti50.5Pd25Pt5 resulting in high transition temperatures above 100ºC, work output exceeding 15 J/cm3, and capability to process into small diameter wire. Thus, rods were drawn into a 0.508 mm diameter wire which was trained, cut into segments, and then installed on a custom linear actuator produced by MIGA Motor Company . 8) A total of five SMA wires are connected to guide rails. Once heated past the transition temperature using direct current (joule heating), each SMA wire contracts to pull its associated guide rail. The summation of the five SMA wires yield a cumulative displacement of 7.1 mm travel to pull the pin and release the second stage.

The pin-puller consists of a 17-4 PH H900 stainless steel pin put in a double-shear configuration between three bushings. The bushings are made of a polyimide plastic that has impregnated graphite.

Once the pin-puller releases the release plate, four compression springs move the plate, unlatching all four deployable SAs. The compression springs were installed concentrically over linear guide bushings. These bushings are made of the same polyimide plastic as the pin puller bushings. The guide bushings ride on guide rods that are made of 17-4 PH H900 stainless steel. The release plate unlatches the arrays using a hook and pin latch. There are two latches per SA panel for a total of eight hooks. Both the hooks and pins are made of 17-4 PH H900 stainless steel. A thin film of a MoS2 lubricant is applied on the hooks and pin to mitigate any binding concerns from friction, although the joint is lightly loaded and lubrication is probably not needed.

Design summary of the hinge:

The final design of the hinge consists of two aluminum hinge knuckles that pivot over a hinge pin, two superelastic SMAs, and a latch to keep the SA in the deployed state. The operation and design of the mechanism is discussed in this section. Figure 4 and Figure 5 illustrate details of the hinge component parts that accompany the description. Table 2 summarizes the functional performance capability specifications and requirements. These specifications are driven to have positive margins per design guidance from NASA-STD-5017.

Figure 4: Hinge component parts and design (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 4: Hinge component parts and design (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 5: Hinge component electrical interfaces and design details (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 5: Hinge component electrical interfaces and design details (image credit: NASA/GRC)

After the R&R releases the SAs, they are free to rotate and each array is driven open by two preloaded superelastic SMAs per array. In this design, a Ni-rich Ni50.7Ti49.3 (atomic %) superelastic alloy was selected to serve a dual purpose of (i) a spring load to open the arrays and (ii) a current carrying conductor to transmit power from the SAs. The superelastic material was rolled into a 0.2 mm thick sheet with a transition temperature (i.e., martensite start temperature) below 0ºC. At room temperature, the sheets exhibited a superelastic plateau between 200 and 300 MPa, depending on the heat treatment used. This superelastic plateau denotes the effective start of the materials’ stress-induced transformation from the stiffer phase known as austenite to the more compliant phase known as martensite. The superelastic sheets were machined into a flat-shape profile and then shape set to a specific U shape with a custom jig. After several iterations, shape-setting parameters were selected to be 550ºC for 2 minutes followed by water quenching, which yielded the best form in terms of stiffness and reversibility after deformation.

Specification Description


Requirement (with margin)

R&R Pin-Puller, Pull Force

13.34 N

≥ 12.19 N

R&R Pin-Puller Stroke Length

7.1 mm

≥ 6.14 mm

R&R 2nd Stage Compression Spring, Spring Rate

0.701 N/mm

0.235 – 0.736 N/mm

R&R 2nd Stage Compression Spring, Stowed Force

6.05 N

2.03 – 6.35 N

R&R 2nd Stage Travel Distance

7.62 mm

≥ 5.87 mm

R&R Operating Power Rating

6 volt limited, 3.0 amps

6 volt limited, 3.0 amps max

R&R SMA Transition Temperature

150 to 160ºC

> +50ºC*

R&R Temperature Operation Range

-51 to +61ºC

-40ºC to +50ºC

R&R and Hinge Maximum Random Vibe Exposure**

14.1 gRMS, 3 minutes, 3 axes

10.0 gRMS, 1 minute, 3 axes

Hinge SMA Stowed Spring Torque (1 spring)

0.190 Nm

0.140 – 0.282 Nm

Hinge SMA Transition Temperature***


> -40ºC

Hinge Temperature Operating Range***

-20ºC to +61ºC

-40ºC to +50ºC

Other R&R Features

High temperature SMA, resettable, one mechanism releases all four SAs

Other Hinge Features

Utilizes SMAs in a new application to advance the technology and SMAs transmit power from the SAs

Table 2: R&R and hinge mechanism performance/functional specifications and requirements

Legend to Table 2

* Initial R&R SMA transition temperatures were set above 100°C
** The development unit was exposed to 14.1 gRMS; the flight unit was only exposed to 10.0 gRMS
*** The hinge SMA transition temperature is known to not meet the low-temperature requirement and starts to soften around - 20°C. This is handled through operational controls. When the CubeSat is in sunlight, the SMA springs will heat up beyond the transition temperature and the SAs will deploy.

From an operational standpoint, the U-shaped form is rotated by an amount of ~270° while in the stowed configuration and by ~135° while in the deployed configuration. When stowed, the material with the chosen thickness and form is designed to exist in the end of the superelastic plateau (i.e., martensitic phase) to provide enough force but no material damage. In the deployed state, the material partially unloads and exists in a multiphase region to continue providing some load in order to keep the arrays open, since the load-free state is the U shape.

In addition to the SMA springs, the hinge design consists of two lugs with bushings made out of the same polyimide plastic with graphite as used in the R&R. The lugs and bushings rotate around a precision ground, 17-4 PH H900 stainless steel hinge pin, constrained by aluminum hinge brackets on either end of the pin.

Upon deploying the arrays, a hard stop on the hinge brackets was designed to prevent the array from going beyond the required deployment angle, since the superelastic springs continue to apply a force. Once in the deployed state, a latch engages to act as a failsafe to keep the arrays in the deployed state should an unknown or unexpected environment cause the springs to become too cold and temporarily lose their spring
stiffness. The design of the latch is a pin and detent type design. It converged on using a piece of spring steel lightly preloaded on a bare aluminum cylindrical surface. When the array rotates open, the latch falls into a slot locking the array in the deployed configuration. The latch to cylindrical surface has a thin film of a MoS2 lubricant applied to ensure low friction and smooth deployment.

The hinge design also transfers the electrical power from the SAs to the power management system. This is done by conducting electricity through the superelastic springs. To ensure a good electrical path and strong structural stiffness accommodations, the superelastic springs were riveted and directly soldered to the SA panel and then attached to the radiator with screws. On the radiator end, the fasteners used to attach the superelastic springs also conduct the electricity to a copper lug. Wiring harnesses were soldered directly to the copper lug, which takes the electrical power to the power management system. Isolating the various electrical paths from one another involved adding a shrink tube to the hinge pin, polyimide tape to various surfaces on the radiator and chassis (in case the superelastic springs inadvertently contact those surfaces), and G10 fiberglass laminate composite bushings around the fasteners used to attach the springs to the radiator.


Design Evolution, Development Issues, and Solutions

The following section discusses the design evolution, development issues, and solutions of each mechanism, starting with the R&R and followed by the hinge.

The mechanism’s development started with proof of concepts tests. These involved building several early low-level hardware models to test out the design ideas and options. The R&R was subjected to several three-dimensional (3D) printed designs, which aided in choosing the design features to use and to discover issues with the concepts. The hinge also used 3D printed hardware to prove out the concepts. In particular, several of the latch concepts were tested quickly using 3D printed hardware. This proved to be advantageous since conventionally machined designs can be more expensive and time consuming.

When the designs were finally matured, an EDU (Engineering Design Unit) of each mechanism was fabricated and tested to prove out the designs for flight. The EDU was built to be as flight-like as possible. The test program was conducted in the summer of 2016 and included subcomponent testing such as measuring performance parameters of the hinge SMA springs, R&R linear actuator pull force, and other data used to correlate to analysis. The subcomponents were then combined into a system and subjected to environmental testing. This included a random vibration test to 14.1 gRMS for 3 minutes in three axes and in extreme cold and hot environments with margin. The EDU functioned successfully before and after the vibration test and in the extreme thermal environments. This testing program was very successful. It proved out the designs and discovered issues that were corrected in the final build. Though the EDU and flight builds differed slightly, the EDU essentially acted as a qualification unit. After the EDU test campaign, a critical design review was held to present the final design that incorporated all of the changes discovered in the EDU tests.

R&R: Early Concepts: The final R&R in the ALBus design was the product of several iterations. Three main concepts were initially investigated. The first was a piston design using antagonistic SMA springs where one pulled and the other pushed to release the SAs when activated. This design never made it past the conceptual phase as it was determined the unrestrained condition of the SMA spring in one of the directions would mostly likely be detrimental under launch vibrations and possibly cause a premature deployment. The second concept involved a collet design and used an SMA to free up the collet fingers. A plastic 3D printed prototype was created and the design was moving toward development of a fully functional engineering unit. While this concept was very promising, the mass budget and forecasted development time stopped this concept from continuing. The mass of the entire CubeSat needs to be kept at or under 4 kg. A critical thermal issue demanded the addition of a radiator for the primary mission objective, which reduced the available mass for the R&R. At this point in the development of the mission, there was not enough time to redesign and reduce the mass. This led the design toward the third and final concept described.

The final R&R design was based on prior SMA work developed at Glenn and is an SMA linear actuator device that can be quickly procured and modified. Leveraging the second-stage loaded spring concept of the collet design and this SMA linear actuator, the SMA driven pin-puller design was created for the ALBus CubeSat. The moving pin frees up a secondary release plate used to constrain the deployable SAs through two hooks on each deployable array.

R&R: Development Issues and Solutions: The design of the R&R started by using the linear actuator in its originally designed configuration given our budgetary and time constraints. However, it became apparent that the linear actuator needed some modifications to meet our mission’s application.

One of the most critical changes was the SMA material. Initial requirements listed a thermal environment that may have exceeded the activation temperature of commercially available SMAs. This would cause a premature activation and release of the SAs, which could cause the CubeSat to jam inside the deployer. Fortunately, an SMA wire with a higher phase transition temperature had already been developed by Glenn. This wire was incorporated into the design and alleviated the thermal concerns. However, this wire had never been tested or used in other flight applications and therefore, the ALBus mission was the first opportunity to use it.

Another change to the existing SMA linear actuator was the location of the pin-puller attachment point (output stage). The existing actuator caused the pin-puller to be off-center from the four guide rails. This was due to packaging the actuator in order to physically fit inside the CubeSat chassis. To install the linear actuator so the pin-puller would be centered, it would have to be offset so much that it would protrude outside of the walls of the chassis. The off-center pin-puller was clearly not ideal, however, that configuration was attempted nonetheless to identify potential issues and solutions. A plastic 3D-printed prototype was created and the concept worked. A metal prototype followed and was also shown to work, however, it was prone to occasional binding from the off-center pin-puller. Since the R&R is a missioncritical mechanism, this anomaly was unacceptable. The linear actuator was then modified to move the pinpuller attachment point to allow the actuator to be mounted in the R&R and align the pin-puller on center. This substantially reduced the observed binding, but did not remove it completely.

The R&R was still prone to binding occasionally when the release plate tilted. This led to the next change, which added guide bushings made out of a polyimide plastic. Prior to the bushings being added to the design, the thin 3.17 mm thick aluminum release plate only had holes drilled in it so it could travel on steel guide rods. NASA-STD-5017 provides guidance and recommends a length ratio of 2:1 for plain bearings that are used in this guide rod type configuration. For the ALBus, this is a physical impossibility as the bushing and resulting guide rails would become too long and take too much space inside the CubeSat. If this ratio cannot be met, as it is in this case, the specification recommends taking into account several potential binding-causing issues. It also suggests to perform an analysis based on report work by J. R. Schroeder. 9)This analysis was performed and a compromise between overall length of the guide rails and bushings to the physical packaging limitations of the CubeSat was made. As a result, the bushings were made as long as possible toward the base plate and extended toward the releasing direction. This change significantly reduced the observed binding, but did not prevent all of the binding occurrences.

The final change made to remove binding, also learned from the EDU, was to free up the guide rods. When the guide rods were fully installed by tightening the installation nut, the R&R was still prone to binding. When the nuts were loosened to allow the rails some freedom to move, the mechanisms released smoothly and consistently. Therefore, the final design allowed the guide rod to float. This was designed into the flight mechanism such that the guide rod diameter to the through hole in the base plate has a diametral clearance gap of 0.229 to 0.381 mm (0.009 to 0.015 in). When the installation nut was installed, it was preloaded onto a collar of the guide rod that extended past the base plate. As a result, the nut did not lock out the guide rod to the base plate, allowing each of the guide rods to float a small amount. All of these design modifications allowed the mechanism to consistently function during the development tests.

Hinge: Early Concepts: There was one previous concept for the hinge. This design consisted of solar cells on both sides of the SA, which complicated the assembly and design. This concept used one large blade-like hinge knuckle with smaller hinge brackets. However, three superelastic springs were needed to provide the power from both sides of the SA. The concept had solar cells installed onto PCBs that sandwiched the hinge and SMA springs. The difficulty with this design was getting the electrical power from the solar cells to the SMAs and isolating those electrical paths from each other. A non-electrical conducting coating needed to be applied because this was a metallic blade hinge. Eventually, the requirement to have solar cells on both sides of the SA was deemed unnecessary and removed. This allowed the design to evolve into the final concept with reduced complexity.

Hinge: Development Issues and Solutions: From this initial concept, the hinge design still had several design, interface, and assembly issues to overcome. The design evolved to reduce the effects and risk of friction-causing issues. One was changing the large hinge knuckle in favor of two smaller knuckles at the corners in order to limit the contact area of the knuckle on the pin. The other change was to add a bushing made out of a polyimide plastic with impregnated graphite between the hinge knuckle and pin interface. This provides a low-friction interface on the rotating parts’ surfaces without the need for grease or liquid lubricants.

Transmitting the electrical power through the SMAs and isolating them from each other required many design solutions. The SMA needed to be isolated over the steel hinge pin, chassis, and through the radiator. Isolating the hinge pin from the SMAs was solved by adding a polyimide tape layer covered by a heat shrink sleeve. The SMA was isolated from the radiator using G10 composite bushings, which isolated the terminal bolts from the metal radiator. These isolation solutions work in the stowed configuration. However, when deployed, the SMA bends and folds into a different shape that can contact the radiator and chassis in other areas, causing an electrical short. This was solved by adding the polyimide tape to the radiator and chassis in areas where the SMAs may make contact.

Designing the SMA to provide enough torque to open the array and transmit the electrical power required many considerations. The final shape of the SMA was driven by the required torque and the available room for installation onto the SA. The torque drove the width of the SMAs, however, that width was wider than the available footprint to install the SMAs to the PCB and keep them isolated. This was solved by maximizing the width of the SMA where it attaches to the radiator and over the hinge pin where the torque is generated. Then, the SMA’s width narrows down at the installation location on the PCB. Some issues arose during mechanical tests. The SMAs were soldered to the PCB copper substrate and the torque generated by the SMA to open the array was enough to delaminate the copper layer from the rest of the PCB. This issue was solved by adding a rivet close to the edge of the PCB. However, installing the rivet caused the SMA and PCB to crack. This issue was solved by adding a washer to both sides of the rivet to spread out the load when driven. Lastly, the design decision on how to install the SMA to meet the SMAs’ torque requirement was made. The initial SMA location was inboard under the hinge pins. This did not work because it prevented the array from fully deploying. The final configuration chosen was to install the SMAs outboard of the pin.

The hinge latch is provided as a backup to keep the SAs in the deployed configuration if the SMAs fail. The latch evolved from several different concepts, but was kept as a simple hook and detent latch. Overall, the latch worked well, although there were some special considerations performed during assembly for proper functionality. Initially, the latch had some issues staying latched. The hook would jump out of the detent when the array hit the hard stops and then rebound. Several mitigation methods were used to prevent this. Proper installation of the hook is key to ensure that it is preloaded with enough force. This is done by installing the hook in the deployed configuration. The latch design is a steel on aluminum surface. The loading is light enough that a thin film of a MoS2 lubricant applied to the contacting rotating surfaces is enough to mitigate the friction concerns. However, the lubricant has to be limited to a thin film and cannot go onto the latching surfaces in the detent or the mating surface on the hook. If it does, the hook can slip out of the detent.


Flight Assembly and Test

Building and testing the flight hardware started in February 2017. A number of unexpected issues arose during the assembly, which emphasized the need for schedule margin to work through those issues. Several of the hardware components required rework upon receipt from manufacturing. The R&R failed during subcomponent testing, primarily due to incorrectly-sizing the linear actuator and not fully understanding the friction forces in the pin-puller. This resulted in redesigning the R&R’s 2nd stage compression springs and reducing their spring rate and stowed compression force. During the hinge assembly, one of the SMA springs fractured and had to be replaced. Then, during a critical time of final CubeSat integration with only a month left before the project was scheduled to be completed, multiple SMA hinge springs fractured and failed prematurely as seen in Figure 6. All of these issues did not occur during the EDU assembly and test.

Figure 6: SMA hinge spring failed flight attachment (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 6: SMA hinge spring failed flight attachment (image credit: NASA/GRC)

The failure of the SMA hinge springs during the final moment of integration proved to be a major issue and adversely impacted the schedule. From the failure investigation, it was determined that the failure occurred due to fatigue and over constraining the SMAs at the attachment point on the deployable SA panel. The EDU was cycled several times and this failure never occurred, making this failure even more unexpected. Further comparing the EDU and flight hardware, the issue was determined to be the SMA’s attachment method to the panels. In the EDU version, there was a gradual bending slope in the SMA sheet where it attached to the deployable panel. In the flight version, a washer under a rivet head was added to prevent the process of driving the rivet from potentially cracking the SMA sheet, and the SMA was soldered more firmly past the rivet head toward the hinge pin. It was intended to solder the EDU hinges following the same procedure used in flight hardware. However, the EDU never adhered to the deployable panel near the rivet, and testing was conducted in that manner. This was corrected in the failed flight version by having a trained technician perform the soldering procedure, which was thought to have made the attachment better. The result actually caused the SMA to bend and crease at a very sharp corner when in the deployed configuration as seen in Figure 6, which should be the lowest stress state. This was verified by attempting to perform 15 wear-in cycles on the flight design, which resulted in more SMA spring failures in early cycles.

The SMA hinge springs needed to be disassembled, redesigned, and replaced. The corrective action consisted of moving the solder attachment to cover the bottom half of the SMA hinge spring only and away from the rivet. The SMA was redesigned to remove a narrowed-down region that was no longer needed since the solder is only being applied at the very bottom edge. This increase in area was estimated to reduce the stress on the part by more than 20%. Finally, the washer under the rivet, which was still needed to prevent the rivet from potentially cracking the SMA, was bent upward to allow the SMA to have a smoother curve onto the PCB. These changes can be seen in Figure 7. New SMAs were then fabricated with the same processes that were conducted on the original batch such as torque testing each new spring. The new design was then installed onto the EDU and underwent a 4-times cycle life test (130 cycles) to gain confidence that the changes would correct the issue, which it passed. The redesign was then reinstalled on the flight hardware and underwent a 15 cycle wear-in test to ensure good workmanship and no other issues. Figure 7 shows the new SMA spring design and attachment method.

Figure 7: SMA hinge spring flight design change, attachment corrective action, and repair (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 7: SMA hinge spring flight design change, attachment corrective action, and repair (image credit: NASA/GRC)

Once assembled, similar to the EDU testing, the flight subcomponents underwent functional and performance testing to ensure they were functioning correctly. Then, the units were integrated into the flight CubeSat assembly and underwent environmental testing. This included a random vibration test to 10 gRMS for 1 minute in three axes and a thermal/vacuum bake out. The CubeSat was functional before and after the vibration test and after the thermal/vacuum test. It was then stored for shipment to the launch service provider with a target launch date of April 2018. Images of the flight hardware are provided in Figure 8.

Figure 8: ALBus CubeSat R&R and hinge mechanisms flight hardware (image credit: NASA/GRC)
Figure 8: ALBus CubeSat R&R and hinge mechanisms flight hardware (image credit: NASA/GRC)

In summary, the ALBus CubeSat mechanisms are an attempt to advance CubeSat technology by reducing mechanism risk from deployments of SAs. They also advance SMA technology by demonstrating the use of custom, unique, and high-temperature SMAs in the space environment. The project illustrates the potential of SMAs in CubeSat applications where space and weight are limited. This work is also a simplified example of the steps needed to develop a new design or technology from concept to final product and all of the common development challenges that occur along the way.

Lessons learned include:

• Friction forces are difficult to quantify without validation from hardware tests.

• Sizing analyses such as loads, mechanisms, and kinematics should be done early on along with the design concepts even if firm inputs are not available. Do not focus only on the CAD design aspects.

• Building an EDU or 3D printing hardware to test is key in any new development to quickly uncover assembly issues and evaluate actual functional performance. Do not only rely on analysis only.

• Even though it can be easy to create dynamic and kinematic models for mechanisms, it may be very difficult to get meaningful correlations with the actual test data.

• SMA applications should be evaluated from a system level. For example, although the hinge mechanism uses simple SMA sheets, the integration process which involved bolting, riveting and soldering proved to be very difficult.


The ALBus CubeSat was launched on the Electron vehicle of Rocket Lab on 16 December 2018 at 06:33 UTC (19:33 NZDT) from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula with the ELaNa-19 payloads and others. 10) 11) 12) 13)

Rocket Lab has christened the mission “This One’s for Pickering” in honor of the New Zealand-born scientist William Pickering, who was director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for 22 years until his retirement in 1976.

NASA is providing the launch via the ElaNa-CSLI (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-CubeSat Launch Initiative) program. 14)

Orbit: Circular high-inclination (85º) orbit at an altitude of 500 km.


Payload complement of 13 CubeSats

This mission includes 10 ELaNa-19 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites-19) payloads, selected by NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative. The initiative is designed to enhance technology development and student involvement. These payloads will provide information and demonstrations in the following areas:

ALBus (Advanced Electrical Bus), a 3U CubeSat of NASA/GRC to demonstrate power technology for high density CubeSats.

CeREs (Compact Radiation belt Explorer), a 3U CubeSat of NASA. High energy particle measurement in Earth's radiation belt.

CHOMPTT (CubeSat Handling Of Multisystem Precision Time Transfer), a 3U CubeSat of UFL (University of Florida). CHOMPTT is equipped with atomic clocks to be synchronized with a ground clock via laser pulses.

CubeSail, a mission of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A low-cost demonstration of the UltraSail solar sailing concept, using two near-identical 1.5U CubeSat satellites to deploy a 260 m-long, 20 m2 reflecting film.

Da Vinci, a 3U CubeSat of the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy to teach students about radio waves, aeronautical engineering, space propulsion, and geography by sending a communication signal to schools around the world.

ISX (Ionospheric Scintillation Explorer), a 3U CubeSat of NASA and CalPoly to investigate the physics of naturally occurring Equatorial Spread F ionospheric irregularities by deploying a passive ultra-high frequency radio scintillation receiver.

NMTSat (New Mexico Tech Satellite), a 3U CubeSat developed by the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology with the goal to monitor space weather in low Earth orbit and correlate this data with results from structural and electrical health monitoring systems.

RSat-P (Repair Satellite-Prototype), a 3U CubeSat of the USNA (US Naval Academy ) in Annapolis Maryland to demonstrate capabilities for in-orbit repair systems (manipulation of robotic arms).

Shields-1, a 3U CubeSat of NASA/LaRC, a technology demonstration of environmentally durable space hardware to increase the technology readiness level of new commercial hardware through performance validation in the relevant space environment.

STF-1 (Simulation-to-Flight-1), a 3U CubeSat (4 kg) of WVU (West Virginia University). The objective is to demonstrate how established simulation technologies may be adapted for flexible and effective use on missions using the CubeSat Platform.

In addition to the 10 CubeSats to be launched through NASA’s ELaNa program, there are three more nanosatellites set for liftoff on top of the Electron rocket in New Zealand. NASA also provided a launch opportunity for:

AeroCube 11 consists of two nearly identical 3U CubeSats developed by the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, California. The AeroCube 11 mission’s two CubeSats, named TOMSat EagleScout and TOMSat R3, will test miniaturized imagers. One of the CubeSats carries a pushbroom imager to collect vegetation data for comparison to the much larger OLI (Operational Land Imager) aboard the Landsat-8 satellite, and the other TOMSat CubeSat has a focal plane array on-board to take pictures of Earth, the moon and stars. Both satellites feature a laser communication downlink.

SHFT (Space-based High Frequency Testbed), a 3U CubeSat (5 kg) mission of DARPA, developed by NASA/JPL. The objective is to study variations in the plasma density of the ionosphere by collecting high-frequency radio signals, including those from natural galactic background emissions, from Jupiter, and from transmitters on Earth.


Mission Status

• August 6, 2020: The ALBus CubeSat project had a successful launch Saturday, December 16, 2018 from Mahia, New Zealand via Rocket Lab on Electron. The CubeSat solar panels deployed on Sunday, December 16, 2018 at 2:42am Eastern and Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) picked up the satellite's beacon signal at 7am via their spectrum analyzer. The spectrum analyzer has a ± 7 MHz range, and the Wallops team, while searching for another satellite with a nearby frequency, saw the ALBus beacon signal coming in very strong at the exact beacon period of 15 seconds on the exact frequency of 400.4 MHz. This signal reception immediately validated the success criteria for a successful deployment of solar panels and antennas. Had the antennas failed to deploy, the radio would have most likely destroyed itself as the antennas, when stowed, are touching the CubeSat’s metal chassis. 15)

- Unfortunately, that series of beacons that were received four hours after ALBus deployed was the first and last time a signal was heard from it. Due to scheduling, ALBus was not able to get a first pass scheduled to begin the search until Monday, December 17, 2018. There were seven scheduled ground station passes for the week of the 17th, and four of them were from the ELaNa XIX mission. Several attempts were made until the government shutdown on December 26, 2018, at which point the ALBus team was unable to continue searching. During that time prior to the shutdown, around ten different NORAD objects were iterated through without success, covering about three to four objects at a time per ten-minute pass. The team tried all the objects several times, looking for the beacon signal on the spectrum analyzer, but without success.

- During the government shutdown, the WFF (Wallops Flight Facility) ground station technicians continued to look for the ALBus 400.4 MHz beacon while they supported other missions. A few more search attempts were made after the shutdown, but eventually the search was called off early February 2019.

In summary, the ALBus CubeSat is an example of technology advancement for CubeSat applications. It attempted to demonstrate an increase of maximum power output capability to a target load as well as reduce the mechanism risk from deployments of solar arrays. While the CubeSat could not be demonstrated for the power system, the project still illustrated the potential in CubeSat applications for power where space and weight are limited. It also successfully demonstrated the use of SMA (Shape Memory Alloy) as a reliable deployment mechanism.


1) Allen Guzik, Othmane Benafan, ”Design and Development of CubeSat Solar Array Deployment Mechanisms Using Shape Memory Alloys,” Proceedings of the 44th Aerospace Mechanisms Symposium, NASA Glenn Research Center, 16-18 May 2018, URL:

2) ”ALBus CubeSat will Demonstrate Power Technology,” NASA, 17 July, 2017, URL:

3) Michael Swartwout, Clay Jane, ”University-class spacecraft by the numbers: success, failure, debris (but mostly success),” Proceedings of the 30th Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, Logan, Utah, USA, August 2016, paper: SSC-XIII-1, URL:

4) Martin Langer, Jasper Boumeester, ”Reliability of CubeSats - Statistical Data, Developers' Beliefs and the Way Forward,” Proceedings of the 30th Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, Logan, Utah, USA, August 2016, paper: SSC-16-X-21, URL:

5) ”CubeSat Design Specification,” Revision 13, California Polytechnic State University, February 2014.

6) ”Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer Mk III Interface Control Document,” California Polytechnic State University, August 2007.

7) ”Design and Development Requirements for Mechanisms,” Revision A, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, July 2015

8) Miga Motor Company. “Miniature High Force, Long Stroke Linear Shape Memory Alloy Actuators.” SBIR Phase-II Final report, December 31, 2009.

9) Jonathan R. Schroeder, “Demystifying the 2:1 Ratio and the Stick-Slip Phenomenon: A Technical Whitepaper Explaining the Theory Behind the Binding Ratio and How It Relates to Stick-Slip.” PBC Linear, May 2010.

10) ”Rocket Lab successfully launches NASA CubeSats to orbit on first ever Venture Class Launch Services mission,” Rocket Lab, 16 December 2018, URL:

11) Stephen Clark, ”NASA, Rocket Lab partner on successful satellite launch from New Zealand,” Spaceflight Now, 17 December 2018, URL:

12) Jeff Foust, ”Rocket Lab launches CubeSats for NASA,” Space News, 16 December 2018, URL:

13) ALBus hopes to increase power availability for CubeSats,” Space Daily, 18 December 2018, URL:

14) ”Upcoming ELaNa CubeSat Launches-ELaNa XIX,” NASA, August 2018, URL:

15) Deboshri Sadhukhan, Allen T. Guzik, Othmane Benafan, Issam Boukabou, Brian J. Tomko, Mark R. Sorrells, William A. Fabanich, ”Advanced eLectrical Bus (ALBus) CubeSat: From Build to Flight,” Proceedings of the 34th Annual AIAA/USU Virtual Conference on Small Satellites, August 1-6, 2020, Logan, UT, USA, paper: SSC20-WKII-01, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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