Two South African nanosatellites are among a contingent of 28 small satellites from 23 countries scheduled to be launched into space next week on a rocket bound for the International Space Station, where they’ll be cut loose to conduct research on the Earth’s atmosphere.
Provided there are no delays — there have already been some — the entire shipment of nanosatellites will go up into space on April 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and fly as cargo to the ISS.
The nanosats are part of an intercontinental research project called QB50, funded by the European Union and managed by the Von Karmen Institute, according to a press release. Research will be conducted on a part of the atmosphere called the lower Thermosphere, located between 200 km and 380 km (124-to-236 miles) from the Earth’s surface.
Members of the South African Institute of Technology (SAT) CubeSat team assemble their first nanosatellite. Photo: Robert van Zyl/tedxinnovations.ted.com
By 2020, there will likely be thousands of small satellites in orbit, most of them for telecommunications, Phys.org reported. The company Oneweb wants to have 648 small satellites in orbit by then to provide Internet access all over the world.
The lower orbits are a part of the atmosphere that’s getting a lot of attention, said Roland Fischer in a Phys.org report:
The space flight scene is in a state of upheaval. Something along the lines of a democratisation of space is happening – at least as far as the lower orbits are concerned. For several years, numerous universities have been experimenting with so-called nanosatellites. In the coming years, they will probably experience a commercial breakthrough.
Once the rocket reaches the ISS, the nanosatellites will be unloaded by ISS crew and transferred to deployers with the help of robotic arms. The satellites will eventually be deployed into low-earth orbit over a period of 30 to 60 days as the ISS orbits the Earth.
Nanosatellites or nanosats weigh 2.2-to-22 pounds. The term was introduced by NASA around 2004, according to WiseGeek. They have nothing to do with nanotechnology, (the precise engineering of materials on atomic and molecular scales).
What makes them appealing is that’ they’re small and relatively cheap, opening up the potential for a swarm of the satellites:
They can piggyback on larger launches, avoiding the need for a dedicated launch. From a military perspective, a nanosatellite may be useful for the redundancy it could offer. Its small size might also help it avoid detection.
Low cost – those are the magic words in this new space movement, Phys.org reported. “Until now, space missions were the preserve of the big state agencies,” said Markus Rothacher, a professor of mathematics and physical geodesy at ETH, a science, technology, engineering and math university in Zurich. “But today, every university is in a position to produce its own satellites, as are the smaller companies.”
The two South African-designed and built nanosatellites — nSight1 and ZA-Aerosat — were made by Cape Town-based SCS Space, a subsidiary of the SCS Aerospace Group — Africa’s largest privately owned satellite group — and CubeSpace, a spinoff from Stellenbosch University.
The nanosatellites will operate for 18 months before falling back into the atmosphere and burning up. That data they collect will be used to refine models of the atmosphere, especially those that apply to spacecraft re-entry trajectories, Engineering News reported.
Michael Swartwout from the University of St. Louis is documenting the development of nanosatellites on an online database. He doesn’t see any sign of a slowdown in the rapid growth that began in 2014, Phys.org reported.
“No slowdown in sight, not at all,” he said.
In November, Oneweb announced its satellites will be made by Ruag in Switzerland. It’s a prestigious deal. In Switzerland, the 600-plus satellites will be built for 20 million Swiss francs ($19.8 million US). That’s $32,751 each — about the price of a medium-sized car.
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