The Future of Satellites | Byte Orbit

The Future of Satellites

Written by: Jo Jackson

16 January 2019

Satellites

The Future of Satellites

Written by: Jo Jackson

16 January 2019


When looking up into a clear night sky, it’s easy to momentarily mistake a satellite for a shooting star, but its steady speed and unwavering light quickly give it away. Believe it or not, we’ve been gazing up at satellites for thousands of years - just not the man-made kind. Our moon is the most intimate example of a natural satellite we have. Even Earth itself is a satellite of the Sun. 

It was through observing and understanding the intricacies of our solar system, that the initial concept of artificial satellites came about. Isaac Newton, father of Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, published the first mathematical study of the possibility of an artificial satellite in 1687, but it was only in 1957 that the Soviet Union launched the world’s first ever artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around the earth.

At the time, the launch of Sputnik 1 was awe-inspiring, and yet today we hardly give a second thought to a satellite cruising across a starry night sky, but it was that initial, groundbreaking launch that laid the foundations for artificial satellites to become the integral part of society that they are today. Satellites have come a long way since 1957, but how will they continue to influence daily life in the future?

Artificial satellites are highly complex solar-powered electronic structures that move in precisely calculated orbits at various distances from Earth (anywhere from 2,000 km to 35,000 km in altitude). It’s useful to think of satellites as “space mirrors”, sending and receiving signals to and from Earth all the time. 

It’s easy to overlook the central role satellites play in 2018, simply because of how seamlessly they integrate into our daily lives. For example, there are roughly 30 GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites orbiting Earth at this very moment. From tens of thousands of kilometers away they help us navigate even the most intricate of streets and alleys with incredible precision. Our extraordinary global communications systems wouldn’t be conceivable without artificial satellites, as they are responsible for handling “hundreds of billions of voice, data, and video transmission tasks”. Satellites also enable remote regions, ships and aircraft to communicate with the rest of world. Even DStv depends on them! 

But satellites don’t all simply act as nodes in a communication path. Some are also “eyes in the sky”, performing tasks such as mapping the surface of the Earth, observing weather patterns, collecting climate change data, or helping with search and rescue missions. The Hubble Space Telescope is without a doubt our most powerful “eye in the sky”, but it’s job isn’t to observe what’s happening down on Earth. Free from the constraints of our planet’s atmosphere, it has helped us observe and understand what lies out there in the great expanse of space in unprecedented ways.

While satellites are well-established technology, there is innovation taking place all the time with regards to how their capabilities are being applied. The high quality mapping capabilities of certain types of satellites have been put to use exposing human rights abuses. The visual evidence provided by aerial satellite shots played a key role in corroborating witness statements and video footage of mass graves in Burundi, for example. Sine 2012, the European Union has run a Farming by Satellite competition to encourage students and postgraduates to use their knowledge and creativity “to find innovative ways to use satellite technologies to improve agriculture and the environment.” The applications of current satellite technology seem endless, but what new uses will we find for the latest generation of artificial satellites?

The International Space Station (ISS) “is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit.” It’s visible to the naked eye, and you can even get a heads up from NASA the next time it flies over your area! But what is the smallest artificial satellite in orbit around Earth? With all the advances we’ve made in the miniaturisation of technology, attention has now turned to the design and development of small satellites. 

To be considered small, a satellite needs to weigh in at under 500 kg. Miniaturising satellites doesn’t just reduce the construction and launch costs involved in sending satellites into orbit, but large numbers of small satellites “may be more useful than fewer, larger ones for some purposes”. For example, satellite constellations could be used for low data rate communications, or to gather data from multiple points. Small satellites are also the perfect way to test new hardware before using it on a more expensive spacecraft. NASA is currently running a CubeSat Launch Initiative to encourage universities, high schools and non-profit organizations to send their own CubeSats (a kind of nanosatellite made up of multiples of 10x10x10 cubic units) into orbit, piggybacking on upcoming NASA launches. The only real criteria is that “each proposed investigation (demonstrates) a benefit to NASA by addressing aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations relevant to NASA’s strategic goals.” 

The smallest satellites of all, called Sprites, pack “power sources, microprocessors, sensors and transmitters into a single tiny circuit board” that measures only 3.5 cm across! While minute in size, these satellites might be our answer to deep space exploration. Privately funded space programme Breakthrough Starshot hopes that one day these tiny satellites will develop into “‘StarChips’—spacecraft integrated with gossamer-thin, meter-wide “lightsails” that would travel at 20 percent the speed of light to Alpha Centauri or other nearby stars, propelled by high-powered pulses of photons from a gargantuan ground-based laser array.” The proposition might sound mind-boggling, but in the face of limited methods of propulsion, Stephen Hawking agreed that "light is the most pragmatic technology available."

While some are looking to push Sprites to the limits of human space exploration, others are interested in what nanosatellites could do for us closer to home. Being so much cheaper and easier to produce, it’s not hard to imagine them becoming a massed produced product. Some are already discussing the possibility of individuals having “their own satellite orbiting in space for very low cost.” 

What would you do with your very own satellite?