Swarms of small satellites coming soon

Swarms of small satellites coming soon

Summary: The first satellites were launched about 50 years ago as a way to conquer space. Now, satellites are essential for our civilian and military communications. But they remain large and expensive, some of them costing several hundreds of millions of dollars. This is why researchers from the University of Florida (UF) are building small satellites able to work as a team to take multiple and distributed measurements or observations of weather phenomena for example. These small satellites should cost only about $100,000 to produce. The first one should be launched next year by a NASA rocket and should not be larger than a softball. The goal is to mass-produce these satellites to even reduce their costs. But read more...

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TOPICS: Networking
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The first satellites were launched about 50 years ago as a way to conquer space. Now, satellites are essential for our civilian and military communications. But they remain large and expensive, some of them costing several hundreds of millions of dollars. This is why researchers from the University of Florida (UF) are building small satellites able to work as a team to take multiple and distributed measurements or observations of weather phenomena for example. These small satellites should cost only about $100,000 to produce. The first one should be launched next year by a NASA rocket and should not be larger than a softball. The goal is to mass-produce these satellites to even reduce their costs. But read more...

Benefits of multi-satellite systems

The picture above shows the expected benefits of multi-satellite systems. (Credit: University of Florida) Here is a link to a larger version of this chart.

Prototype of a UF small satellite

And you can see above "a prototype of a 'pico satellite' being designed and built in a mechanical and aerospace engineering laboratory at the University of Florida. [...] The completed pico satellite, nicknamed SwampSAT, expected to be launched in 2009, will be about the size of a softball. This prototype is slightly larger than a basketball." (Credit: University of Florida) Here is a link to several other pictures of these small satellites and the man behind them.

This research project has been initiated by Norman Fitz-Coy, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Fitz-Coy is also the director of the Advanced Space Technologies Research & Education Center (ASTREC) established by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) at the UF College of Engineering.

But will these $100K small satellites replace $100M ones? Not at all. "Fitz-Coy said small satellites are not anticipated to totally replace larger ones, but rather to complement them by adding new capabilities. For example, he said, 'swarms' of small satellites could take multiple, distributed measurements or observations of weather phenomena, or the Earth's magnetic fields, providing a more comprehensive assessment than is possible with a single satellite. 'People are looking toward these to not totally replace the big satellites but to supplement what the big satellites are doing,' he said."

It's interesting to note that it's easier to control large satellites than small ones. Fitz-Coy uses an analogy with cars. "The smaller the satellite, the harder it is to manage its flight path and attitude, or orientation in space -- for example, which directions its instruments point, a critical parameter in spacecraft design. 'It's similar to you driving an SUV down the road or a sub-compact,' Fitz-Coy said, explaining that while inertia helps large satellites, it is not enough to keep small satellites on track and properly oriented. 'The SUV is a lot more stable than the sub-compact.'" Yes, but it costs more...

So what will happen in the short term? The first launch should happen in 2009 "aboard an unmanned NASA rocket carrying other payloads as well. The satellite will fly at an altitude of between 600 and 650 kilometers, or from 373 to 404 miles, and will remain in orbit for several years, Fitz-Coy said. A container that could be standardized for use in transporting the small satellites aboard the rocket also is being developed. As with the satellites themselves, the goal is mass production – to be able to transport satellites to outer space much the same way that ships and trucks transport goods around the terrestrial world now, Fitz-Coy said."

Sources: University of Florida News, November 13, 2008; and various websites

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Topic: Networking

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14 comments
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  • An instance where smaller is better. Seems a good military application too

    The smaller the target the harder it is to hit and they could ( i assume this) be redundant, so if one were to go offline, you have 100 more floating around.

    Not to mention that if it loses its orbit.. it gets destroyed on re-entry and your only out 100k.. cheap compared to the alternative.
    Been_Done_Before
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    Wow, thats pretty amazing, soon there will be more traffic in space than there is on the streets here!

    jess
    http://www.anontools.hk.tc
    AbleCluster
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    This is a great idea. They should produce these for for cell phones to have connections everywhere and not have to rely on microwave towers. They could cover the whole world.
    johncall101
    • Good idea

      This is a good idea. But we need cheap prices. In any case, this is the right connection for emergency services (better, an hybrid satellite-terrestrial mobile phone).
      PedroMacanas
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    They should produce these for a world wide cell phone network. Then we could get connection anywhere and not have to rely on microwave towers.
    johncall101
  • Nothing novel in this

    Surrey Satellite Technology at Surrey University in Britain has been producing small and pico satellites to order for years yet the US is excited at producing prototypes. I suggest the US buys them from the experts.
    misceng
    • oooooo

      ooooo
      Frizzles
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    Do you read fiction this is old news Dale Brown has used it for years and did not Arthur C. Clark mention it once or twice.
    JEFF008
    • Arthur C. Clark invented the concept...n/t

      n/t
      Wolfie2K3
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    Shades of SALVAGE 1.
    jwild12841@...
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    Amateur radio satellites have been flying for decades. These have been used for both digital and voice communications.

    However, "swarms" of small satellites make me wonder about their impact on the safety of space flight.
    rdhalsteatzd
  • Great... Just what we need...

    Swarms of junk floating around in orbit... Kinda reminds me of the scenes from Wall-E...
    Wolfie2K3
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    I suggest add more information about third generation solar cells, that are smaller and weight less for smaller satellites.

    Regards
    PedroMacanas
  • RE: Swarms of small satellites coming soon

    lol. There is a difference between writing a fiction book and making things actually happen. =).
    Frizzles