Satellites have gotten smaller – so even you can do science in space
Want to go into space? It could cost you dearly.
This month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft will do the first fully private crewed flight to the International Space Station. The list price for a seat is US$55 million. The ticket includes an eight-day stay on the space station, including room and board – and incomparable views.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer cheaper alternatives, which will make you fly at the edge of space for a single $250,000 to $500,000. But the flights only last between Ten and 15 minutesbarely time to enjoy an in-flight snack.
But if you’re happy to keep your feet on the ground, things start to look more affordable. Over the past 20 years, advances in small satellite technology have brought Earth orbit within reach of small countries, private companies, academic researchers, and even DIY enthusiasts.
science in space
We are scientists who study our planet and the universe beyond. Our research extends into space in search of answers to fundamental questions about the evolution of our ocean in a warming world, or to study the supermassive black holes that beat at the heart of distant galaxies.
The cost of all this research can be, say, astronomical. the James Webb Space Telescopewhich launched in December 2021 and will search for the first stars and galaxies in the universe, had a final price tag of $10 billion after numerous delays and cost overruns.
The International Space Station Prize, which hosted nearly 3,000 science experiments over 20 years was US$150 billion, with an additional US$4 billion each year to keep the lights on.
Even weather satellites, which form the backbone of our space observation infrastructure and provide essential measurements for weather forecasting and natural disaster monitoring, cost up to $400 million each. build and launch.
Budgets like these are only available to governments and national space agencies – or a very select club of space-loving billionaires.
Space for everyone
More affordable options are now democratizing access to space. so called nanosatelliteswith a payload of less than 10 kg including fuel, can be launched individually or in “swarms”.
Since 1998, more than 3,400 nanosatellite missions have been launched and return data used for disaster response, marine traffic, crop monitoring, educational applications and more.
A key innovation in the small satellite revolution is the standardization of their shape and size, so they can be launched in large numbers on a single rocket.
CubeSats are a widely used format, 10 cm per side, which can be built with off-the-shelf electronic components. They were developed in 1999 by two California professors, Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, who wanted graduate students to gain experience designing, building and operating their own spacecraft.
Twiggs says the shape and size were inspired by Beanie Babies, a kind of collectible plush presented in a 10 cm cubic window.
Commercial launch providers like SpaceX in California and rocket lab in New Zealand offer “carpooling” missions share the cost of the launch through dozens of small satellites. You can now build, test, launch and receive data from your own CubeSat to less than $200,000.
The universe in the palm of your hand
Small satellites have opened up exciting new avenues for exploring our planet and beyond.
A project we are involved in uses CubeSats and machine learning techniques to monitor Antarctic sea ice from space. Sea ice is a crucial part of the climate system and improved measurements will help us better understand the impact of climate change in Antarctica.
Sponsored by the UK-Australia Space Bridge Programthe project is a collaboration between universities and Antarctic research institutes in both countries and a UK-based satellite company called world spire. Naturally, we called the project IceCube.
Small satellites are also beginning to explore beyond our planet. In 2018, two nanosatellites accompanied the NASA Insight mission to Mars to provide real-time communication with the lander during its descent. In May 2022, Rocket Lab will launch the first CubeSat to the Moon as a precursor to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by 2024.
Tiny spacecraft have even been proposed for a trip to another star. the Revolutionary Starshot The project wants to launch a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft of every centimeter in size toward the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light years away. Powered by ground-based lasers, the spacecraft would “sail” through interstellar space for 20 or 30 years and return images of the Earth-like exoplanet. Proxima Centauri b.
Small but mighty
With advances in miniaturization, satellites are getting smaller and smaller.
“Picosatellites”, the size of a soda can, and “femtosatellites”, no bigger than a computer chip, bring space within the reach of discerning amateurs. Some can be assembled and launched for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Finnish company is experimenting with a more sustainably built CubeSat in wood. And new smart satellites, equipped with computer chips capable of artificial intelligence, can decide what information to send back to Earth instead of sending it all, dramatically reducing the cost of phone calls.
Getting to space doesn’t have to cost Earth much after all.
This article from Shane Keatinglecturer in mathematics and oceanography, UNSW Sydney and Claire Kenyonastrophysicist and scientific communicator, The University of Melbourneis republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.
Shane Keating and Clare Kenyon will discuss CubeSats and the Space Bridge program at Designing Beyond Earth: The Future of Earth Observationan in-person and online event at Scienceworks in Melbourne on Sunday, March 27, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.