Nano/Microsatellite: The Next Big Thing in Space

Super-fast Evolution of Nano/Microsatellites in Space

One area where innovation is proceeding at a very fast pace is miniaturisation, as may be observed in everyday life. High levels of miniaturisation may be achieved by applying micro / nano-technologies. Like mobiles, satellites are also getting smaller and better.

Nano satellites are just about the size of your shoe box. But, they can do almost everything a conventional satellite does, and that too at a fraction of the cost. Which is why everybody – from government organisations and start-ups to educational institutes – is scrambling to get a piece of the small-sat pie. The industry is responding to the subsequent profit vulnerability by making smaller spacecrafts quickly, deploying them even more swiftly and getting data from them rapidly.

Micro/nano-satellites are artificial satellites of low mass and size, usually under 500 kg. While all such satellites can be referred to as “small”, different classifications are used to categorise them based on mass. The main objective of most space agencies in the mid to long term is to reduce the costs and delays associated with space-based services.

This means strongly reducing spacecraft lifecycle costs and lead time, without reducing (and most likely increasing) performance. In turn, this would allow the full potential of space to be exploited and space-based systems to be competitive with ground-based systems that provide similar services. For scientific and experimental missions, more data and data of a higher quality and interest would be produced within a shorter time from the mission approval, and that within the budgetary limitations, to satisfy the respective communities.

Communication System In Small Satellite

Communication systems in small satellites are experiencing an extremely fast evolution. Early CubeSats carried simple beacon transmitters or could downlink only a limited amount of data, most of the times only for housekeeping purposes. In recent times the picture changed dramatically with several scientific missions flying and even more proposed. Several commercial Earth observation systems are being designed as well. This forced the nano-satellite designers to improve the communication sub-system to accommodate the data throughout required for current missions.

In addition to satellite requirements several other well documented developments in the field of nano-satellite engineering also have a profound effect on the communication subsystem. This includes improvements in power generation and storage, better AOCS systems and pointing accuracy as well as a drive to increase both the available volume as well as the utilisation of volume in this class of spacecraft. Commercial Earth observation and remote sensing constellations continue to make up a substantial portion of the market, encompassing 63% of all nano/micro-satellites that were launched last year.

Nano/Microsatellite’s Emerging Opportunities

Concerning nano/microsatellites purpose trend, there is an evidence of adoption of small satellites for applications beyond technology demonstration.

The following examples have been identified as emerging opportunities already addressed by Nano/Microsatellite precursors:

Agriculture Health Monitoring: Monitor crop health and forecast crop yields with timely sub-meter imagery. Identify pest infestation and plan irrigation levels to augment your precision agriculture techniques.

Humanitarian Aid: Monitor refugee movements and infrastructure development in conflict areas to aid humanitarian efforts.

Insurance Modelling: Inform risk exposure models to increase efficiency and profitability. Frequently monitor high value assets for change.

Oil Storage Monitoring: Monitor oil storage containers with sub- meter imagery for changes in volumes to inform commodity trading decisions.

Natural Disaster Response: Aid first responders in rescue coordination. Monitor long- term recovery and relief efforts.

Oil and Gas Infrastructure Monitoring: Explore potential sites or monitor existing property and infrastructure for safety and security. Detect the intrusion of vehicles, new construction, or vegetation on pipeline corridors.

Financial Trading Intelligence: Access proprietary information to make more informed and competitive investment decisions. Identify changes in relevant metrics like the number of cars in a retailer’s parking lot or size of stockpiles of natural resources in ports.

Mining Operations Monitoring: Explore new sites or monitor ongoing projects. Identify specific rock topologies and geological structures associated with mineralised areas. Obtain up to date imagery for evacuation planning.

Carbon Monitoring: Create reliable carbon stock baselines and improve land cover maps.

Maritime Monitoring: Monitor ships entering and exiting ports with HD video to inform supply chain optimisation decisions. Validate AIS data and analyse container activity in ports.

Retail: Traffic gauging of parking lots to find out how many shoppers expected at every hour of every day.

Micro Satellite Revolution

Nano/Microsatellite Market

Research firm, Markets and Markets has predicted a bullish future for the small satellite industry. The nano and microsatellite market is estimated to grow from $702.4 million in 2014 to $1,887.1 million in 2019. A study by Northern Sky Research predicts earth observation as the primary driver behind this growth.

This is because earth observation market suffers from data poverty in many industry verticals, like agriculture, disaster management, forestry and wildlife. The research firm believes that a staggering 40 percent of the nano and microsatellites, which are to be launched by the end of year 2024, will be for earth observation applications.

Nano/microsatellite development continues to be led by the civil sector, but the defence/intelligence community is showing increased interest and involvement. Applications for nano/ microsatellites are diversifying, with increased use in the future for science, Earth observation, and reconnaissance missions.

It’s safe to say, in the future, small satellites are going to play a big role.

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