Nanosatellites – little boxes with a big impact
Nanosatellites are in the process of fundamentally changing communications in space. By positioning hundreds of small satellites in space, it will be possible to create a broad network of information systems around the earth to revolutionise data gathering. Even journeys to distant solar systems now seem to be more than a distant pipe dream in light of the highly promising characteristics of these miniature satellites.
What are nanosatellites?
As their name suggests, nanosatellites are particularly small satellites – by definition with a weight between 1 kg and 10 kg. Satellites of this order of magnitude are still a relatively new phenomenon in space exploration, but they could lead to fundamental change in the sector over the next few years, opening up still unimagined possibilities.
So, what exactly makes these small satellites so special, given that most are no larger than a small overnight bag? And how does a nanosatellite differ in the way that it works compared to a traditional satellite?
While traditional satellites can generally reach the size of a small car, with a similar weight, nanosatellites are small and easy to handle. This material difference brings decisive economic benefits; nanosatellites are so small that several can be transported in a single launch and deployed to space in a targeted manner. Whereas traditional satellites each require a rocket of their own, and are launched into space using expensive missions, the process of placing a nanosatellite into orbit is much cheaper. In general, these small satellites can even “fill a gap” on regular space missions to optimise the use of existing space.
The impressive flexibility of nanosatellites
The small size of these miniature satellites naturally has implications for the range of functions they can support, leading to a significant difference between traditional and small-format satellites. This emergent type of satellite mostly specialises in a particular competence and accordingly cannot compete with large earth observation satellites in terms of versatility. Nor does it have to: skilful placement of multiple nanosatellites opens up entirely new possibilities for space travel, which will complement conventional satellites wonderfully well in future.
Experts believe that a large swarm of multiple specialised satellites using intelligent communications technologies would be capable of forming a broad, global information network. This would allow small satellites to identify forest fires on our planet, observe the weather in space to prevent power outages or even travel to distant solar systems and explore the universe.
Scientists are convinced that a space network with thousands of nanosatellites could achieve much greater coverage of the earth’s surface (for a longer period and over a larger geography) if individual satellites exchanged specific information with one another. By using modern communications technologies such as the network-capable
By using modern communications technologies, such as the network-enabled S-Link radio with a transfer rate of 6,000 Kb per minute at distances of up to 400 km, it will be possible to transfer data much more quickly in future. An additional benefit consists of the fact that it will be easy to correct for the failure of a single nanosatellite.
The GeneSat-1: a small NASA satellite to test the technology - © NASA
The new technology also offers extensive benefits in terms of the speed of data transfer: whereas conventional satellites transmit the raw data that they gather back to their home planet while flying over a ground station, thereby leading to latency of several hours, data can be transferred using nanosatellites within an hour or two. This benefit is essential in predicting natural disasters in particular.
However, despite the many benefits of satellite technology, there are still certain challenges to be overcome: hot topics such as space debris and data protection are more important than ever, and becoming increasingly important in the satellite community as the technology develops.
The development of nanosatellites is also closely linked to other hot button issues such as networking, Industry v4.0, robotics, Augmented and Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence. Intelligent communications and data transfer technologies that are developed for use in space can be deployed on earth as well in order to optimise the speed, sustainability, service life or range of existing applications in the fields of light engineering and aviation. The new possibilities that result could also lead to lasting changes in the employment market by creating demand for new skill profiles for highly qualified engineers and scientists.
A nanosatellite’s route into space
Four cuboid miniature satellites, with each side being exactly 24 cm long, were developed over a five-year period at Berlin Technical University’s Aerospace Institute. With a weight of 9 kg, these nanosatellites might be as light as a feather by the standards of the space sector, but they are completely packed with high-tech applications.
In fact, the Berlin quartet is so small that it even managed to find space in a Soyuz rocket that was being launched from Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome space port. The major challenge for this truly special space mission involved positioning the four satellites accurately in space: the nanosatellites do not have their own propulsion units and therefore had to be positioned at a height of 580 km at intervals of exactly ten seconds. The satellites are now moving further apart due to natural drift at equal intervals and, as such, are creating their own small, space network to gather and transmit data.
NASA is aiming to revolutionise the world with nanosatellites - © vocativ
India could also make a name for itself in the world of nanosatellite technologies: the country successfully launched a total of 104 satellites into the vast expanses of space in 2017, one after another.
A glimpse of the future – a journey to Alpha Centauri
Scientists predict a bright future for these pint-sized satellites: according to Stuart Eves of Surrey Satellite Technologies, the number of satellites orbiting the earth could increase by a factor of ten over the next few years. Technological progress, such as significant weight savings and new data processing techniques will make the technology that is developed interesting both for space applications and for applications on the ground, such as maintenance of offshore wind farms.
Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Starshot project is even more ambitious: it involves an attempt to launch a large number of nanosatellites into space as a swarm. Flying in sync, these small satellites should move so quickly that they could reach the Alpha Centauri star system in around twenty years: a mission that would have seemed inconceivable even a few years ago. The Alpha Centauri star system is around four light years away from our planet and is highly interesting from a scientific perspective: scientists suspect that there may be earth-like planets at a similar distance from their “sun” as from the earth to our own sun. This means that the prevailing temperatures could permit the existence of liquid water – which is a pre-requisite for every kind of life.
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