Tiny Satellites Promise Low-Risk, Low-Cost Space Future

Graeme Stemp-Morlock
for National Geographic News
August 20, 2008

Space-industry belt-tightening and ever shrinking technology are combining to give tiny satellites a big future, scientists say.

Sometimes as small as softballs, the little orbiters are cheaper and quicker to build than the megabuck, monster-size satellites that have dominated for decades.

"In the last ten years small satellites have started to take off across different industries and the world," said Pat Patterson of the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University.

"Small satellites have allowed the world to access space," continued Patterson, who last week headed the 22nd Annual Conference on Small Satellites, where about a thousand aerospace scientists and industry representatives met in Logan, Utah.

"In the U.S.A. we have plenty of money for big spacecraft in space," Patterson said. "Other countries don't have that kind of cash flow, but they do have $10 to $15 million [for a small satellite], so the market is growing."

Try and Try Again

Small satellites range from softball size to refrigerator size. The Hubble Space Telescope, by comparison, is the size of a school bus.

The new devices can measure, observe, and communicate an ever increasing amount of data.

Most critically, these devices—such as NASA's nine-pound (four-kilogram) NanoSail-D model, which is about as big as a loaf of bread—take some of the risk out of developing new space hardware.

The failed launch of a privately funded SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket ended the NanoSail-D mission earlier this month. But the satellite's destruction over the Pacific Ocean was a relatively minor loss, given the comparatively small investment involved.

Two NanoSail-D satellites had been built in just six months and cost only U.S. $2.3 million apiece—pennies in the spacecraft world, where space shuttle launches cost about $450 million each.

Although NASA has said it has no immediate plans to relaunch the satellite, scientists are hoping to try out the spare NanoSail-D.

Continued on Next Page >>


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