[FoRK] [tt] Tiny Satellites for Big Science

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Jul 13 05:53:15 PDT 2010

----- Forwarded message from Arlind Boshnjaku <arlindboshnjaku at yahoo.com> -----

From: Arlind Boshnjaku <arlindboshnjaku at yahoo.com>
Date: Tue, 13 Jul 2010 01:57:03 +0200
To: transhumanist news <tt at postbiota.org>
Subject: [tt] Tiny Satellites for Big Science


Posted:   07/12/10
Author:    Prachi Patel
Summary: The shrinking technology of cell phones, laptops and cameras
are now leading to palm-sized satellites. Easy to build and
affordable, these small satellites offer a new way to conduct
astrobiology research. They also could change the way we explore the

When it comes to laptop computers and cell phones, bigger isn’t
better. The same logic applies to satellites: the bulkier the
satellite, the more time it takes to design and build, and the more
expensive it is to put into orbit.

Researchers are now taking advantage of the electronics technologies
that have made personal gizmos compact and affordable to make
satellites that weigh and cost a fraction of their predecessors. These
pocket- and backpack-sized satellites are changing the way
astrobiology research is done.

Conventional satellites used for communications, navigation or
research can be as large as a school bus and weigh between 100 and 500
kilograms. Universities, companies and NASA are now building small
satellites that weigh less than one kilogram (picosatellites) or up to
10 kilograms (nanosatellites).

These small satellites can be considered miniature versions of
full-size counterparts. They contain the same components—battery,
orbital control and positioning systems, radio communication systems,
and analytical instruments—except everything is smaller, less
expensive and sometimes less complicated.

“That’s the beauty of this technology,” says Orlando Santos, an
astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center. “We can make these things
small and still get meaningful science out of them.”

The Rise of the Cube

Two decades ago, Bob Twiggs and his students at Stanford University
developed the first picosatellite the size of a Klondike ice cream
bar. The Aerospace Corporation launched these picosatellites as part
of a mission to demonstrate the feasibility of building little
satellites that communicate with each other.

Twiggs then worked on CubeSat, a 10-centimeter cube. “I got a 4-inch
beanie baby box and tacked on some solar cells to see how many would
fit on the surface,” Twiggs says. “I had enough voltage for what I
needed so I decided that would be the size.”

Jordi Puig-Suari at California Polytechnic State University built a
deployment mechanism called the poly picosatellite orbital deployer,
or P-POD, that could pack up to three CubeSats. One of these is
typically the satellite bus, the brains of the satellite containing
positioning and radio equipment, while the other cubes carry the
scientific experiments. In 2004, the researchers sent the first
three-cube nanosatellite into orbit.

Six years later, CubeSats have become the world-wide standard for
small satellites. They are being used for everything from
environmental sensing and fundamental biology research to testing new
space flight systems.

Over 60 universities and high schools are part of the CubeSat Project
based at Cal Poly. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Air
Force have programs that funds CubeSats for atmospheric and space
weather research. Aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and
Boeing have also built and flown CubeSats.

Kentucky-based NanoRacks LLC provides a platform to take CubeSat
experiments as cargo aboard the Space Shuttles to the International
Space Station for periods of 30 or 60 days, after which they bring the
cubes back.

The goal of NASA’s new CubeSat Launch Initiative is to radically open
up the flight opportunities for nanosatellites. This Initiative should
also make it easier for universities to compete for launch access on
NASA launch vehicles.

There are probably between 35 and 40 small satellites orbiting the
Earth right now, of which about a quarter might still be working, says
Twiggs, now a professor at Morehead State University’s Space Science
Center in Kentucky.

Cutting Costs

The biggest advantage of nano- and pico-satellites is that they are a
bargain. Most of the cost saving comes at the launch stage. Unlike
conventional satellites, they don’t need a dedicated launch vehicle
where they are the primary payload. “They’re so small they can hitch a
ride on somebody else’s rocket,” Santos says. NASA’s nanosatellite
missions cost two million a piece as opposed to the tens of millions
needed for a conventional satellite.

Their affordability also comes from being built with off-the-shelf
electronic circuit chips such as microprocessors and radio frequency
transmitters and receivers. These are the same components that are
inside smart phones, hand-held Global Positioning System units, and
digital cameras.

In fact, the miniaturization of electronics has been the driving force
behind small satellite technology, making it affordable, says Twiggs.
“Electronics today are much more power-efficient than electronics of
the past; that helps us,” he says. “Ten or fifteen years ago we
couldn’t have found the components for the price that we could’ve

Small satellites shouldn’t add to the problem of space debris since
they are relatively easy to deorbit. NASA’s Astrobiology Science and
Technology Instrument Development has an upcoming nanosatellite
mission, Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses (O/OREOS).
O/OREOS will have a sail packed into it that will be deployed at the
end of the mission. “It increases the satellite’s surface area and
speeds up its fall to Earth,” Santos says. “It’s so small it’ll burn
up soon as it enters the atmosphere.”

The low cost and relatively quick turnaround time of a few months
makes nanosatellites invaluable from an education perspective.
Students and young engineers get to participate in a project from the
initial paper design to building and testing to the eventual launch.
This gives next-generation scientists hands-on experience in
development, management and mission training.

Astrobiology in Miniature

For NASA, low-cost nanosatellites are an ideal platform for science
and technology, including fundamental biology and astrobiology

“Astrobiology is ripe for the use of small satellites,” says Jason
Crusan, chief technologist for space operations at NASA headquarters
in Washington, D.C. Performing a large number of experiments is best
for studying biological processes. “If you can increase your flight
frequency then you increase the number of experiments you need to do,
but you need a lower-cost solution like nanosatellites to do this.”

Besides, unlike astronomy, experiments for astrobiology lend
themselves to miniaturization. This is due to advances in
microfluidics technologies and the miniaturization of optical
detection instruments. For instance, the spectrometer on O/OREOS is
the size of a candy bar.

Santos says that there is an intense interest in astrobiology and life
sciences to gain access to interplanetary conditions above low-Earth
orbit. That’s where you can study how living organisms and
life-related compounds are affected by the cosmic radiation above the
Earth’s protective atmosphere and by reduced gravity. “That’s how we
can study the big questions in astrobiology,” he says. “What happens
when we go to space? Or are we carrying microorganisms that may
contaminate science experiments?”

So far, NASA has launched two nanosatellites into low-Earth orbit
between 450 and 550 kilometers above the surface. GeneSat, which was
launched in December 2006, studied the effects of space on bacteria,
while PharmaSat, which went up in May 2009, investigated the effects
of antifungal agents on yeast growth in space. The O/OREOS satellite,
which will be launched late this year into 650-kilometer orbit, will
study the effects of a larger array of space conditions on microbes
and important biological compounds.

In the future, nanosatellites may allow experiments to reach beyond
low-Earth orbit. They could go into lunar orbit or into solar orbit
halfway between the Earth and Venus, or one day even land on the moon.
Envoys of CubeSats that have more smarts and a built-in thrust
mechanism might even be sent out to explore vast swaths of our solar
system and beyond. Orbiting other planets or landing on the surface,
these nano-explorers could search for compounds that signal the
existence of life, communicating their findings with each other and
with controllers on Earth.

Twiggs is now working with researchers at the University of Rome on
pocket-sized 5-centimeter cubes. Because these are an eighth of the
volume of regular CubeSats, Twiggs hopes they will cost that much
less. The team is planning to launch eight of these pocket cubes
packed inside a launcher on a Russian ballistic missile by spring of

Nano- and picosatellites will not replace their larger cousins—there
are certain experiments that cannot be miniaturized or that need more
power and hence more area for solar panels and antennae.

“Everybody doesn’t drive a little teeny car, there are big trucks to
carry things around,” Twiggs says. Instead, small satellites should
open up a new way to do research and education, proving that good
things can come in small packages.
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