The Parallel Evolution of MBSE and CubeSats

Let’s dive into the interplay between CubeSats and Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE), two innovations that have mutually benefited each other while evolving in tandem.

The journey begins in the 1990s when both concepts emerged. In 1999, the concept of CubeSats is introduced by Cal Poly and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab.

CubeSats are tiny, stackable satellites that are popular because they’re less expensive and quicker to build than traditional space satellites.

About the size of a loaf of bread, the satellites can be shot into space as secondary payloads or by hitching a ride with larger spacecraft. The technology has made accessing space more affordable for research, technology demonstrations, and academic projects.

Also in the 90s, Model-Based Systems Engineering, or MBSE, emerges as a concept as complex systems necessitate the need for an alternative to document-based systems engineering.

The term is first used in A. Wayne Wymore’s 1993 book, “Model-Based Systems Engineering.” The concept gains steam in the late ’90s and early 2000s among systems engineers tasked with complex projects.

In the mid-2000s, experimentations with both technologies take off. The first CubeSats are launched primarily for academic and research purposes.

Meanwhile, the development of foundational MBSE tools and languages fuels interest within the systems engineering community.

As both concepts mature, they intersect in the late aughts and early 2010s. During this era, CubeSats become more sophisticated and are used for advanced scientific research and demonstration missions.

This is also when MBSE integrations begin within academic projects, including CubeSat development, increasing MBSE exposure to students and researchers.

As CubeSats evolve from rudimentary educational tools to more advanced, mission-critical satellites, MBSE provides the necessary framework to manage the growing complexity. The rising popularity and accessibility of CubeSats become a practical and cost-effective platform for applying and refining MBSE practices.

As MBSE facilitates the standardization and modular design of CubeSats, both concepts become more accessible and versatile for numerous applications. In academia, CubeSats become a means for practical MBSE applications among students and researchers, driving awareness and further adoption of the model-based approach.

The relatively low cost and risk associated with CubeSat projects encourage experimentations that would have been considered too risky for larger commercial projects.

In turn, MBSE streamlines the integration of advanced technologies into CubeSats, boosting their capabilities.

Today, MBSE is a standard practice in large-scale aerospace and defense projects and smaller satellites missions like CubeSats.

As CubeSats undertake increasingly ambitious missions, including interplanetary exploration, MBSE drives design and process improvements.

According to the Nanosats database, 2,323 CubeSats have been launched as of January 1st, 2024.