Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Small Satellites, Big Ideas

As a space guy of sorts, one of the topics I've made a favorite is small satellites, the smaller the better. I'm endlessly fascinated by the increasing capability we can put on increasingly small satellites.  Even imaging, which we used to consider "unshrinkable," is achieving resolutions up to 1.5m (that is, they couldn't read your license plate, but they could keep tabs on your car) from satellites down in the 15kg range. 
I'm headed off next week to the Conference on Small Satellites, where the fans of this technology gather from all over the world.  Utah State University's Space Dynamics Lab in the metropolis of Logan Utah is the center of the world's preeminent annual gathering of people who develop, launch, and operate microsatellites. (The terminology gets a bit confusing, what with nanosatellites and femotsatellites and the rest, but "microsatellite" is generally held to mean satellites under 100kg, and that's a good reference point.)
The point, however, is not that you can make a satellite smaller, or that smallsats are always they best way to do a mission. They're not always the solution, and some things like high-resolution imaging can't be done that way. (Yet.) It's about a mindset of being willing to experiment with unorthodox ways to accomplish something, and seeing what you can accomplish if a launch vehicle can now carry 4 or 8 satellites instead of one. 
The U.S. military, which is sometimes curiously reluctant to embrace new technology without a compelling reason, is hesitantly advancing in this field. Universities, priced out of conventional satellite approaches, are embracing it wholeheartedly, and even high schools are getting into the act, thanks to a remarkable little standard satellite "bus," or framework, called the CubeSat.  Satellites can cost in the tens of thousands rather than tens of millions of dollars, and NASA has a praiseworthy (see, I just praised it) endeavor to help educational and scientific CubeSats find cheap or no-cost launches.
I'm sort of rambling on here, but the point is, as Space News once astutely quoted me as saying, that a space agency is no longer necessarily a large government or corporate organization. A space agency can be a smart kid with a soldering iron and an American Express(TM) card.  And no one can predict where that's going to lead. 
People are even listening (a few of them, anyway) to my crazy ideas, like this one.


game01 said...

Technology has always been a gift to our lives. It 's just us use it well. If we can do things faster and better, then it must be a gift from the gods, right? But, as always, we must not too dependent on technology, because if ever these gifts we can not, we must always try to help ourselves to live.

Tech Blog

Matt Bille said...

No argument there.