Until recently, satellites orbiting the Earth were large, heavy craft. In recent years, however, a growing fleet of smaller satellites has been launched, ranging from the size of kitchen refrigerators down to golf balls. These relatively tiny SmallSats have an exponentially growing number of uses and, thanks to their miniaturization coupled with rocket technology innovation, are far cheaper to launch and maintain than ever before. A class of the smallest SmallSats are called CubeSats, which refers to a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor. The standard CubeSat size uses one standard module or unit (“1U”) measuring 10x10x10 centimeters.
Satellites of all sizes are being streamlined to rely more on 3-D printing which saves manufacturing costs and increases orbit efficiency. For example, Boeing Co. is incorporating 3-D printing in the development of its 502 Phoenix satellites.
Some of the uses for these new baby satellites include gathering weather data to aid farmers, transportation and logistics firms. Environmental impact data can be used by government agencies to monitor deforestation, polar icecap and ocean changes over time. Satellites are also bringing internet service to all parts of the globe, including rural areas that other providers cannot reach.
SmallSats promise vast increases in cost-efficiency, utility and flexibility. Today’s state-of-the-art satellites feature computer circuitry that can be reprogrammed from the ground, on an as-needed basis. SmallSats are easier and faster to manufacture as well.
Thanks to advanced technologies and miniaturization, today’s tiny satellites are much lighter in weight than former generations. This means that a launch rocket can carry a much higher number of satellites in one payload. This is important, because launch costs are one of the major investments required in completing the tasks required to get satellites into service. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of electric car company Tesla, is revolutionizing satellite launches. His SpaceX firm has shown that rocket bodies can be recovered and reused in a highly efficient manner. His methods are slashing the cost of putting satellites into orbit.
Entrepreneurs and investors at OneWeb are launching a revolutionary “constellation” of 882 low-orbit satellites that will drive down costs and improve performance in telecommunications and internet applications. They have created the world’s fastest, most cost-efficient satellite factory. Major investors in OneWeb include such non-military, non-aerospace firms as Coca-Cola.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are typically in orbit at altitudes of 400 to 1,000 miles, and are used for telecommunications and internet access. Because of their low altitude, the time required to send and receive Earth signals is shorter. This can be extremely advantageous in many circumstances. For example, passengers on cruise ships are dependent upon satellite systems for internet access, which traditionally has been very slow. LEO satellites are speeding up ship-board internet to the extent that movies, gaming and intense business applications are much more practical.
Cruise ships are perfect customers for fast internet access via low-orbit satellites. RCL (Royal Caribbean Lines), one of the world’s largest cruise lines, is working with O3b to offer its passengers the ultimate in floating connectivity. (Users report that speed is definitely higher than on other cruise ships, but still subject to the fluctuations that satellite services is known for.) RCL claims that it offers more bandwidth than every other cruise ship in the world combined. Guests are encouraged to Tweet, Skype, Stream movies (using accounts with DIRECTV, Netflix or Hulu), connect with friends or play Xbox Live with gamers worldwide. Its newest ships even offer live, global gaming rooms.
This new data is now available at Plunkett Research Online, and in a brand-new book: Aerospace, Aircraft, Satellites & Drones (UAV) Almanac 2018 Edition.
Printed Almanac ISBN: 978-1-62831-476-2 | E-book ISBN: 978-1-62831-801-2