Medescape

Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

Mass Production of Picosatellites?

Traditionally, satellites have tended to be quite large (+500kg), but as technology progressed we were able to scale down most of the components and reduce the weight. In addition to the standard satellite we now have a whole range of miniature editions, namely minisatellites (100-500kg), microsatellites (10-100kg), nanosatellites (1-10kg) and the latest addition; picosatellites, which only weigh 0.1-1kg. As in any other business, being cost-effective is crucial for companies wanting to launch satellites into orbit, and the cost of doing so is very much dependant upon the weight of the satellite. In 2000, the average cost of putting one pound (0.45kg) into GSO (geosynchronous orbit) was about 12,000$, which is considerable. Launching 20 or more smaller satellites from the same launch vehicle would thus be a lot cheaper. 

Another issue with satellites is that they are all custom made, which makes them extremely expensive. A team of scientists are currently building a picosatellite at the University of Florida, and they foresee that future satellites might be mass produced to reduce the production costs. 

Another major problem with these small satellites is, ironically, their low mass. Large satellites are less affected by gravity, so their flight path can be kept somewhat stable. These low-mass picosatellites would on the other hand be inherently difficult to control, and even really basic things as keeping their instrumentation pointing in the right direction would be problematic. In addition, due to the fact that their communication signals would have to be very weak (which again is due to their tiny size), they would have to have a very low orbit, and this increases the need for their instrumentation to be precisely targeted. One of the main tasks of the picosatellite built at the University of Florida, called SwampSAT, is therefore to test a new system designed to improve the altitude control of small satellites. This will hopefully further improve these systems for future launches. The plan is to launch SwampSAT sometime in 2009, and it will remain in orbit for several years.  

A prototype model of SwampSAT (from the University of Florida)

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November 17, 2008 - Posted by | 1 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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