Florida Tech Discovery Magazine, Spring 2019: Small Satellites, Big Impact
This article is featured in the Spring 2019 edition of Discovery, Florida Tech’s research magazine. To view this edition and Florida Tech’s archive, click here.
Over the years, technology has gotten smaller while its power has increased.
Cell phones are much smaller than the brick-shaped versions of the 1980s and have more processing power than early NASA computers. Computers themselves are smaller. Cameras, video game consoles, projectors – all are well-known examples of this phenomenon.
But the trend is taking hold in something else that is not a household gadget: satellites.
Called CubeSats, these devices can be as small as 10 cubic centimeters – though some are comprised of multiple 10-centimeter units – and can weigh as little as three pounds.
Starting at about $10,000, CubeSats are far less costly than standard satellites, where a standard earth-sensing satellite can cost several hundred million dollars. CubeSats are also easy to assemble, integrate and test and can be launched for a price lower than primary missions – about $700,000 for a six-unit CubeSat.
They are increasingly sharing something else with those other shrinking doodads: a growing ubiquity as a powerful research tool.
Florida Tech has joined a sizable cadre of universities in utilizing CubeSats in the classroom. Led by Aerospace, Physics and Space Sciences research professor Francis Bourne, the university is taking CubeSats and their academic focus and pushing it further, to the realm of space research.
“As platforms grew larger, the objectives grew beyond educating students,” Bourne said. “There is now nascent interest in providing real services on real missions.”
Industry to Academia
Bourne came to Florida Tech in July 2016 after more than three decades at Harris Corporation, the Melbourne-based technology innovator, including the last five as head of research and development at the company’s government communications systems division.
His time at Harris included opportunities to interact and collaborate with “really smart” people in different areas – a practice he is working to replicate at Florida Tech. He believes CubeSats may be the vehicle to make that happen.
“We can create real opportunities, focused on both science and deliverables,” he said.
One project involves an old friend: Harris Corporation.
Florida Tech and Harris are working on a technology demonstration of a high-powered CubeSat payload that consumes four times the power of a normal payload. (Bourne was not allowed to say what the payload does.)
That energy-gobbling payload creates challenges for Bourne and his graduate students to solve, involving power management and generation, thermal management and more. The challenges of the small space foster creativity, such as how to manage the heat created by the energy consumption without having to generate more power to do so.
One grad student was exploring surfaces, paints and blankets.
“With thermal management we want to keep things simple, so the more passive we can make those kind of management schemes, the better,” Bourne said. “I don’t want to power things up to manage heat inside the spacecraft, so I’d rather do that with surface treatments or paints, these kinds of things.”
CubeSat design is a collaborative effort between multiple disciplines to ensure the components work with one another.
In addition to space and engineering research, Bourne sees CubeSats as a powerful tool for the science community. For Earth science and heliophysics questions, swarms of smaller satellites can gather more detailed data points than one large satellite. They are also a great financial solution to standard Earth-sensing satellites.
“These kinds of platforms provide an inexpensive, cost-effective way of addressing these interests,” Bourne said.
As Florida Tech furthers its CubeSat research, Bourne is developing the CubeSat Integration Lab in the F.W. Olin Engineering Complex. There, students have a place to plan and implement new concepts as they work on satellites.
Other faculty have utilized CubeSats to further their research.
Daniel Batcheldor, head of the Department of Aerospace, Physics and Space Sciences, used a CubeSat attached to the International Space Station as a technology demonstration for a detector that will go on space telescopes for imaging planets surrounded and obstructed by a star’s light.
The construction and launch of the satellite took two years, and while there were delays in the process, it was still shorter than traditional satellite development and launch, which can take approximately seven years, according to the International Cost Estimating and Analysis Association.
Florida Tech is going beyond simply launching CubeSats. The CubeSat development program is developing small satellites that have attitude control, an aeronautical measurement of the orientation of an object with respect to its frame of reference to another.
“That’s a challenge in something that’s very small, because the hardware that you need in order to control the attitude of a spacecraft is quite large right now, so the miniaturization of those components is something that has to take place,” Batcheldor said.
Communication is another aspect the program is analyzing, as it can be difficult establishing a connection between a large satellite dish and a CubeSat. One solution being researched is the use of lasers to transmit data.
While the technology behind CubeSats is growing, these devices are still seen by government as a secondary payload, launching with other materials on a rocket. There aren’t any launch vehicles dedicated to CubeSats, though Bourne imagines that may happen within the next five years.