Nanosatellites: Big things come in small packages

A nanosatellite is any satellite that weighs between 1 and 10 kilograms. Initially, nanosatellites were only ever used in low Earth orbit for communications and remote sensing (measuring the reflected and emitted radiation of an object in order to study its characteristics), however, recent advancements have led to their application in interplanetary missions. One such project that utilised nanosatellite technology was NASA’S Mars Cube One (MarCO) which tracked the robotic lander designed to study the deep natural interior of Mars.


These devices needn’t be used on a solely individual basis, in fact, constellations of nanosatellites, involving a cluster of sometimes as many as 100 hundred units, are now sent up to collect all sorts of data, remaining in orbit for up to 25 years, and updating every couple of years or so, before disintegrating upon re-entry into our atmosphere at the end of their operational life.


Nanosatellites have a myriad of applications and benefits that make them an exciting avenue for numerous fields, from aerospace exploration to telecommunications to meteorological and microbiological research.


What is a CubeSat?

Owing to its standardisation and innovative design, one class of satellite known as CubeSat has played a significant part in the proliferation of nanosatellite missions. Born in the 90s, and launched shortly after the turn of the millennium, CubeSat was the brainchild of two aerospace professors, Bob Twiggs (Sanford University) and Jordi Puig-Suari (California Polytechnic State University), who set their students a task of making a miniature satellite over the course of their year-long Master’s course. By the end of the year, the class had produced the now industry-renowned CubeSat.


The final product was inspired by the noughties' obsession with Beanie Babies, of all things. The professors wanted to make a satellite that was small and compact, around the size of a Beanie Babies box. After numerous trials and several prototypes, the CubeSat came to fruition. CubeSats have a standardised form (a 10cm cube, surprise, surprise, with a mass of approximately 1.33kg) and are constructed from off-the-shelf technologies. Bolstered by their use of commercial electronic parts, and their enabling affordable access to space, these units have paved the way to a revolution in space exploration.


Nanosatellite applications

Since their first development in the 1990s, nanosatellites have been used for many different purposes, such as:


Earth observation

Project PlanetScope is a constellation of 130 CubeSat devices able to image the entire land surface of the Earth on a daily basis. Through being able to visually display largely anthropogenic-driven climate change in real-time, the data serves as a powerful impetus to press governmental bodies into taking steps to protect our planet, as well as aid in overall environmental planning and assessment.


Space data garnered from nanosatellites will also be useful in helping humanity prepare for things like natural disasters, for instance, nanosatellites have been developed to predict impending hurricanes.


Microbiology research

The first biological CubeSat mission will be commencing this month on November 14th with the BioSentinel project. Flying as a secondary payload in association with Artemis 1, BioSentinel’s objective is to study DNA’s damage response to radiation within deep space through observations of S. cerevisiae (a form of yeast).


Astrobiology research

The NASA led project O/OREOS (The Organism/Organics Exposure to Orbital Stresses) was a programme designed for in situ exposure of biological matter aboard nanosatellites. The project involved rehydrating microbes at three different times over the project's duration to see how space radiation and gravity affected the organisms, survival, health, and growth.


Nanosatellites have allowed for an array of scientific testing to be conducted in space, from seeing how radiation affects human DNA to developing best practices to detect extraterrestrial life forms, carry out unmanned space biolabs, as well as monitor health during crewed missions.


Communications

These low-cost, low-flying devices have played a pivotal role in the development of the Internet of Things, helping intelligent devices connect to the internet, as well as each other. Current wireless communications technologies, such as 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi, are not able to cover an entire country. However, nanosatellites can, and are opening up the possibility for widespread, effective data communication unfettered by the limitations of their Earthly counterparts. It is no surprise that the increased usage of nanosatellites across the board is being termed the ‘nanosat boom’.


To the right is a diagram depicting how a constellation of nanosatellites communicate with each other through Inter Satellite linkURL (ISL):


Geolocation

Every year many ships are lost at sea. Not only do shipwrecks pollute our oceans, they sometimes go completely unreported — the shipping location systems fail and the boat disappears into the deep, blue abyss without a trace. From the vantage point of space, nanosatellites have provided a set of eyes for the globe to be monitored, not only locating the whereabouts of ships, and other aircraft, but also allowing for missing persons to be found.


Signal monitoring

Another use for nanosatellites is monitoring radio signals. In the event of a disaster, nanosatellites can step in, or rather fly in, and inform us of the degree of impact from an environmental disaster, helping rescue aid to be promptly sent out to the appropriate area.


Advantages of nanosatellites

  • Nanosatellites are (around £500,000 compared to approximately £500,000,000 for an average satellite).

  • Nanosat technology is more accessible to various institutions and organisations compared to their larger counterparts.

  • Enhanced data accuracy through networks with high redundancy.

  • Quicker development times compared to larger satellites.

  • Risk is distributed — a nanosatellite constellation does not operate according to a single point of failure. If one nanosatellite in the constellation breaks, the project can be salvaged, or may not be detrimentally affected at all — another one can be sent up to complete the cluster.

  • Highly flexible services. A new business or research venture can facilitate the development and diversification of the onboard technologies.

  • Limited dependence on intermediaries. Other than approval from an aviation authority, space agency giants are not responsible for sanctioning a nanosatellite project, in turn increasing innovation within the field.

  • Improved data protection. Data needn’t be transmitted through on-Earth satellites, preventing the risk of intellectual and industrial property being stolen.


What issues do nanosatellites face?

  • Because nanosatellites can, and do, fail in orbit, they contribute to space junk.

  • When mistakes happen, who is responsible? If a nanosatellite fails, the government might be responsible, but little exists in the way of legislation concerning what should be done.

  • Signalling networks experience congestion due to nanosatellites. Whilst they might be small, these devices pack a punch, and can cause interference in the electromagnetic spectrum — that means mobiles failing and the potential degradation of Wi-Fi networks over time.

  • Nanosatellites have limited to no propulsion — once they’re up they’re up, unless extra cost has been put aside for expensive technology to enable in-orbit manoeuvring.

  • Limited due to their size. There are numerous projects that cannot be tested given the capabilities of a nanosatellite and a larger, far more costly, satellite will be required instead.


How does Sent into Space advance aerospace technology?

The Near Space environment that we access with our bespoke spacecrafts offers a wealth of opportunities for both performance testing as well as conducting space research.



Accessing space simulation chambers or a sound rocket is extremely costly. However, we can allow for testing to be conducted in the harsh environment of space in a far more affordable and speedy manner than the alternatives out there.


In the past, we have tested infrared cameras to see if they withstand the conditions of near space, furthered scientific discovery in the form of particulate testing for geological and microbiological purposes, and we’ve even measured stratospheric gravity waves during a total solar eclipse.


If you are looking to further space research, satellite and avionics component testing or carry out product ruggedness validation, our high altitude platform will grant you access to a unique region of the planet’s atmosphere, from terra firma to the Armstrong Limit. For further information about how we can help you, your company, or your research project gain access to space, get in touch today.