Laptops, cameras, and cell phones are shrinking today, so it shouldn’t be surprising if satellites would become the size of a palm. Tiny satellites with SmallSat cameras are easy to build, not to mention that they could bring amazing development in Astrobiology. At the same time, SmallSat cameras can also change the way we explore our Universe. Find out all you need to know about the importance of SmallSat camera technology.
When we refer to cell phones and laptops, it’s never a good idea to opt for bigger. This is a logic that applies to SmallSat cameras as well. When satellites are bulky, they take a lot of time to be designed and built, so it’s more expensive to put them in orbit. Today, researchers are taking more advantage of the electronic tech that’s making personal gizmos more affordable and compact so that SmallSat can end up weighing only a fraction cost of their predecessor models, along with any SmallSat cameras they carry. Backpack and pocket-sized SmallSat cameras have already started to change the ways in which Astrobiology is conducted.
Conventional satellites are used for communicating, research, and navigation. They are large, and their weight is usually 100 to 500 kg. Companies and Universities are now building SmallSats that weigh between 1 and 10 kg. The 1 kg SmallSats are called picosatellites, whereas the 10 kg ones are known as nanosatellites. SmallSats are the small versions of their full-size counterparts. SmallSats have similar components such as positioning and orbital control systems, a battery, analytical instruments, and radio communication systems. Since these devices are so small, the SmallSat cameras they carry have to be lightweight, too.
Twenty years ago, Bob Twiggs, together with his Stanford University students, developed the SmallSat picosatellite of the Klondike ice cream size. These SmallSats were launched on a mission trying to prove how feasible building small satellites for communication is. And then Twiggs started working on CubeSat, which is another small-sized satellite of only 10 cm. Jordi Puig-Suari from California Polytechnic State University then started building a mechanism for deployment. This mechanism was called a poly picosatellite orbital deployer (P-POD). The P-POD was packing as many as three CubeSats. One such satellite with a SmallSat camera is the satellite bus, the brain of a satellite that contains radio and positioning equipment. The remaining cubes were developed for scientific experiments. Back in 2004, researchers sent into space the first 3-cube nanosatellite to orbit.
After six years, CubeSats and SmallSats have become worldwide satellites of standard measures. SmallSat cameras are now used for environmental sensing and studying fundamental biology research that tests newly developed systems for space flight. There are 60 high schools and universities involved in the CubeSat project at Cal Poly. The US Air Force and National Science Foundation have all sorts of programs funding SmallSat cameras for space weather and atmospheric research. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have also invested in SmallSat camera tech.
NanoRacks LLC, based in Kentucky, provides a platform that takes SmallSat camera experiments in the form of cargo aboard Space Shuttles. The cargo is taken to the International Space Station, where it rests for 30 to 60 days. After, it brings the payload back. NASA’s last CubeSat Launch Initiative is opening flight opportunities for the nanosatellites and SmallSat cameras development. This is an initiative that makes it easier for universities to be in competition for launch access on NASA’s vehicles. There are 35 to 40 SmallSats orbiting our planet now, and a quarter of them are perhaps still working, according to Twiggs.
Small satellites use both SmallSat cameras and CubeSat Cameras. These cameras are for both pico- and nanosatellites, which won’t replace their larger counterparts because some experiments simply can’t be miniaturized or because there’s more power needed for the antennae and solar panels. The interdependence sends to the fact that modification of our atmosphere’s particle types through air pollution is affecting the size, type, and lifetime of the clouds, and this is when it starts to rain. Big science means influencing the Earth’s climate, global cycle of water, and energy balance.
As soon as the sunlight starts to interact with the cloud droplets and aerosol particles present in the atmosphere, it starts to get scattered in many different directions, depending on its shape, size, and composition. HARP measures what scattered light we can see from space, making inferences about the number of aerosols and the atmosphere’s droplets sizes. This is when the clean clouds get to be compared with the polluted clouds. So, light and weather can affect how does SmallSat camera work.
Still, even despite certain limitations, SmallSat cameras could open all sorts of new methods of education and research in the big science sector, to prove that great things can be packed smaller.