Posted by: Chirag Shrestha Category: Uncategorized Comments: 0

In 2014, Planets Lab, a USA-based satellite company, achieved a milestone in space exploration by launching Flock-1, a constellation comprising twenty-eight 3U cube satellites, each of dimensions 30cm × 10 cm × 10cm and weighing only four kilograms, into orbit. Despite their compact size, these tiny-miny satellites delivered images of remarkable 3-meter resolution from Low Earth Orbit. The impact of Flock-1 extended far beyond an experimental venture by a Silicon Valley company, as the images from it became instrumental in global environmental assessments and the monitoring of urban growth.

What set this approach apart in the field of earth observation was the concept of forming a constellation through the accommodation of multiple small satellites in a single launch. Unlike conventional satellites, which were limited by their larger size and capacity, these synchronously working small satellites allowed for daily updates of images. This marked a seismic shift from other commercially available means, where images often lagged by weeks or even months, reflecting the conventional satellites’ capability of scanning an area only once a week. The collaborative power of such a constellation facilitated unprecedented agility and responsiveness in providing up-to-date information on Earth’s dynamic changes. This showcased the potential of small satellites, proving that their collective strength could surpass the capabilities of larger, singular counterparts, signaling a new era in satellite technology and earth observation. In recent times, the attraction towards small satellites, specifically of the cube-satellite class, has increased dramatically.

Small satellites wield an advantage from recent strides in electronics for size minimization, rendering them more compact and cost-effective to produce and launch. This newfound cost efficiency has given rise to the adoption of the ‘launch early, launch often’ strategy, contributing to an agile airspace. The ability to update hardware and software frequently is no longer constrained by exorbitant costs, and technology need not be frozen in time. This evolving paradigm underscores the flexibility and responsiveness that small satellites bring to the forefront, marking a paradigm shift in satellite deployment strategies.

Stack of Starlink Satellite before launch on a Falcon-9 rocket.

Credit: SpaceX

Another instance of small satellites playing a transformative role with SpaceX’s ambitious project, ‘Starlink Constellation’. Utilizing the latest breakthroughs in wireless technology and telecommunication, Starlink is revolutionizing global connectivity. Starlink’s mission of providing high-speed internet services to every corner of the world is making the age-old dream of a global village closer than ever before. From the peaks of the Himalayas to the wilderness of Savanna, people can now be connected, highlighting the potential of small satellites in bridging geographical and geopolitical divides.

Beyond communication and earth observation, small satellites, or SmallSats, have demonstrated immense potential in diverse fields. Last year, the United States Space Force unveiled their plans to deploy a fleet of micro-satellites with missile vigilance and communication relay capabilities. This marked a significant departure from their historical reliance on larger, more powerful satellites. The strategic shift towards small satellites is due to their inherent advantage of reduced vulnerability to attacks due to a diminished radar signature, making them less susceptible to laser or anti-satellite weaponry. US military leaders intend to leverage the capabilities of these small satellites to ensure the resilience of their exo-atmospheric infrastructures through redundancies. Small satellites have proved their capabilities beyond the orbit of the Earth with interplanetary exploration as well. In 2018, NASA launched two 6U cube satellites under the Mars CubeOne (MarCO) mission. The twin cube satellites named MarCO-A and MarCO-B executed a flyby around Mars relaying vital telemetry information of Insight Lander during its Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) phase. The goal of the mission was a technology demonstration for a novel navigation and out-of-line-of-sight communications relay system.

Rocket lab Payload Bay with Planet Lab’s CubeSat

Credit: Rocket Lab

The growing demand for small satellites has provided for a thriving market in manufacturing, management, and launch services. Rocket Lab, a California-based company, is a prominent player in providing launch services for small satellites, reporting an annual revenue of $236.36 million in 2022. Specializing in launching cube and microsatellite classes, Rocket Lab charges between US$50,000 and US$180,000 for launching a 1U CubeSat. Similarly, SpaceX contributes to the ecosystem through its Rideshare program, where small satellites are launched as secondary payloads, costing approximately US$6,000 per kilogram. As the technology of reusable launch vehicles advances these costs are anticipated to decrease. This no doubt will further fuel the growth and accessibility of small satellite deployment.

Despite its popularity, small satellites pose a significant challenge too. With the lowering cost of production and launch of small satellites along with the democratization of outer space they facilitate, the number of small satellites is expected to increase exponentially in the upcoming days, concerning experts regarding proper management and regulations of these tiny titans. Their sheer number and their small sizes make them harder to track and manage and may pose a collision risk to other satellites in orbit, endangering the entire space infrastructure.

Recognizing these challenges, global space communities are becoming increasingly attuned to the importance of robust policies and technological advancements to address these issues. Initiatives such as allocating specific orbits to each satellite aim to enhance coordination and mitigate collision risks, demonstrating a collective effort to ensure the responsible and sustainable growth of the small satellite ecosystem. The problem is also being tackled with technology, many satellites from microsatellite categories are equipped with advanced RADAR systems for debris detection and propulsion systems to raise or lower their altitude for collision avoidance. Moreover, certain satellites are designed with the capability to autonomously deorbit once their operational lifespan concludes, eliminating the risk of space debris accumulation.

Another challenge with micro and nano classes of small satellites is due to their small dimensions. The dimensional restrictions on these classes of satellites force the designers and manufacturers to design the satellites with size, power, and mass limitations in mind. These shortcomings of the satellite confine the satellite to be very specific in its mission and can rarely be repurposed once launched.

Despite a few limitations, SmallSats are bound to summon a transformative era in space exploration. The combination of reduced production and launch costs, the increased accessibility to outer space, and the versatility of these satellites position them as a pivotal tool in reshaping the approach to taming mankind’s final frontier and making the vastness of space accessible to diverse innovators, explorers, and contributors.

What is in it for Nepal in terms of Small Satellites?

In recent times, Nepal has been trying to establish a place for itself in the realm of space science and technology, leveraging the cost-effective advantages offered by small satellites. The successful launches of NepaliSat-1 and Sanosat-1 highlight the rapid growth of Nepalese technological prowess in space-based systems.

Moreover, with the launch of Munal (1U cube satellite developed by Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal underway, Nepal may soon have the capability to dedicate distress messages and SOS calls from remote Himalayan locations, marking a significant milestone in Nepal’s pursuit of harnessing space technology for its interests.

NepaliSat-1   

Credit: Khabarhub

Munal

   Credit: Antarikchya Pratisthan Nepal 

Beyond emergency communication capabilities, Nepal stands to reap substantial benefits from small satellites across various domains. Particularly weather monitoring and forecasting, long-distance communication, global positioning, planetary explorations, and defense can be revolutionized through the deployment of small satellites.

The strategic integration of Small-Sat, coupled with dedicated logistics and management services, presents Nepal with unprecedented opportunities to address numerous national challenges through advanced technological solutions. This trajectory signals a promising and exciting era for Nepal as it positions itself as a capable nation.

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