How Small Satellites Are Radically Remaking Space Exploration?


The UK is actively developing its space industry through small satellites and planning to commission local spaceports to launch UK satellites and spacecraft into required orbit. Besides, the country actively participated in international space programs from ESA and NASA that recently launched a funding program for aspiring scientists. Thousands of researchers and independent organizations submitted their proposals, and the agency only picked four out of them. 

Each of these projects will receive around $450 million as funding, and the second round of funds might be sanctioned depending on project development. This highlights small satellites’ importance for space exploration and other activities back on Earth. 

Small Satellites: New Space Developments & Missions

Small Satellites: New Space Developments & Missions

To take small spacecraft into orbit, new private companies are developing small rockets. These carriers cost only around $5-$10 million to manufacture. Just recently, Rocket Lab announced its plans to start a Lunar Program. Similarly, Virgin Orbit is working with different universities from Poland to send small spacecraft to Mars. 

Spacecraft and smartphones have something in common. The first similarity is that scientists are trying to make a smaller and much cheaper version of the previous models with each passing year. Look at the smartphone industry; we have slimmer phones with more battery power and many upgrades every year. And now, look at the space industry. It is following the same trend. Spacecraft built today weigh only a fraction of the older generation satellites. 

Just a few years ago, NASA launched two small satellites for space science named marCO-A and marCO-B with its Insight mission. These two satellites were tiny in size, but they were capable of traveling to Mars. Neither of them had huge containers full of fuel but used powerful solar panels instead. Once they reached outer space, spacecraft brought out their solar panels and started generating energy. And then, it initiated its trajectory to Mars.

Before launch, scientists had their doubts about marCO small satellites capabilities. Spacecraft was only tested inside the Earth’s atmosphere. But after it completed its six-month descent to Mars, there was no room for doubt. Scientists were sure that even small satellites can travel great distances, adjust their course, and when they reach their destination, they can bring out their antenna and transmit data back to Earth. 

In total, the agency spent over $14 Million on developing marCO satellites. If Insight had failed to land on Mars, these two small satellites would work as a black box for the lost data. The marCO satellites were also built to help the Insight rocket relay information back to Earth. This is a common occurrence for spacecraft entering the atmosphere of an extraterrestrial planet. 

What Are Small Satellites?

What Are Small Satellites?

The significant difference between traditional and small satellites is in their size. Small satellites weigh under 500 kg and are also referred to as CubeSats and SmallSats. 

Recently, small satellites for the earth observation industry have been on the rise as it has helped scientists bring down launch costs. When compared to large spacecraft, CubeSats need small launch vehicles to send them to space. 

Small satellites are also a great way to cover a larger area on Earth. Many private space agencies are developing full-fledged satellite constellations. Once this network is established, scientists will provide a faster Internet connection to people living down on Earth. 

Unlike traditional spacecraft, small satellites’ purpose is to cut down the cost of space access. These satellites can be sent to space in bulk. As they are very small in size, many of them will easily fit inside a small rocket. Similarly, under emergencies, they can be launched in space in large launch vehicles as additional cargo. 

Small Satellite Constellations

Small Satellite Constellations

Unlike stand-alone devices, a small satellite constellation can cover the entire globe without delay or blind spots. A constellation works as a single system, where at least one spacecraft is visible on the horizon at all times. A satellite constellation is not at all like a spacecraft cluster. In a cluster, spacecraft move in a parallel orbit. On the other hand, satellites in a constellation have different orbits, but they are always connected via relaying data. 

For example, the Global Positioning System, or GPS, is a satellite constellation with 24 spacecraft in 6 planes. It is a perfect example of small satellites for remote sensing. 

Besides, satellite constellations can provide fast internet service to remote areas where a wire connection is impossible. Several schools in the North have already been equipped with a stable internet connection from orbit in the UK. 

Final Words

The space industry is on the rise now, and private companies play a large role in this development. As more ambitious startups polish their launch systems and build ever more small satellites, we should expect space tech to become commonplace. 


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