Using data from satellites, scientists found that from 2007 to 2008, six cubic kilometres of water drained from a lake in Antarctica—the largest drainage ever recorded. The amount of water is about one-tenth of the melting that occurs beneath the Antarctic surface each year (Courtesy: Planet Labs)
Using data from satellites, scientists found that from 2007 to 2008, six cubic kilometres of water drained from a lake in Antarctica—the largest drainage ever recorded. The amount of water is about one-tenth of the melting that occurs beneath the Antarctic surface each year (Courtesy: Planet Labs)
A Planet Labs microsat
A Planet Labs microsat

Indian universities developed and launched several microsatellites (microsats) between 2009 and 2011, in association with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). These were amongst the first few microsats in space. While these were successful experiments that gave wings to academic dreams, microsats are now being viewed with greater expectations. These mini space wonders might work their magic beyond the field of science and technology and shake up the business world as well, much on the lines of GPS and location-based services.

“The term microsatellite is generally used for satellites in the range of 10 to 100 kg. Today, satellites generally weigh 1000 to 5000 kg,” explains D. John, former deputy director, Satellite Communication Programme and deputy programme director, EDUSAT, ISRO headquarters, Bengaluru. Microsatellites are not only low in weight, but are also smaller and cost less than regular satellites. This enables them to be sent into space using launch vehicles or by piggybacking on rockets with excess capacity. Plus, due to their comparative simplicity, it also becomes possible to build and launch a fleet or constellation of such satellites, which might be used jointly as a communication or imagery system. Such a system will be capable of grabbing and updating images much faster than traditional satellites, due to the large number of satellites per constellation.

Imagine such constellations of microsats, launched and maintained by private companies, and leased out to businesses or research organisations. It would be possible to know in near real-time about events related to maritime movements, border security, forest fires, migratory birds, traffic situations, diversions, the status of crops, weather changes, map updates, or even the movement of a fleet of trucks, without requiring RFID tags or any cumbersome set-ups!

A satellite image of Juruá river in western Brazil (courtesy: Planet Labs)
A satellite image of Juruá river in western Brazil (courtesy: Planet Labs)

According to Timothy Edgar, visiting fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, USA, “Microsatellites would allow companies, smaller governments or small government entities like state, provincial or local governments, to use overhead imagery with greater resolution and frequency than is typically available today on the commercial satellite imagery market, such as what consumers see with Google Maps. Traditionally, these more powerful images, frequently updated, have been available only to the militaries and intelligence services of major powers. They can be used for military applications and intelligence analysis, and for any number of peaceful purposes such as fighting forest fires, analysing crowds in natural disasters or public emergencies and assisting in law enforcement.” He adds, “The number of microsatellites in space could grow quite quickly, as new companies find ways to exploit such imagery. There could be any number of surprising uses, from real estate (commercial and residential) and parking management to corporate security.”

So the new meaning of SaaS could soon be ‘satellites as a service!’

Smartphones, tablets and, now, satellites
Moore’s Law has had its repercussions in more fields than one. As more and more transistors get packed into integrated circuits (ICs), and the chips get increasingly powerful, it is becoming possible to build more powerful yet smaller devices. What computers could do some years ago, smartphones are now able to do with ease.

Satellite technology is one such beneficiary of advanced ICs. Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs, a US-based company, says, “The microsatellite industry benefits greatly from the exponential advances in computing and the increased miniaturisation of consumer electronics. We are piggybacking on decades of research and development in these fields. If you think about what a satellite is, many of the components are that of a supercomputer. The key components of our microsatellite include communication systems (radio, etc), the optics (for imaging), the power system (battery, etc), and the onboard software and computing systems. Our satellites are essentially remote-sensing robots in space, with superfast processors.”

“The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components has been instrumental in the growth of the microsat industry. During the earlier days of satellite building, components were selected, laboriously space-qualified and tested before they were allowed to be used by quality assurance experts, thus pushing the cost high. Digital ICs were ruggedised by shielding them against radiation in space. Today’s components are developed to ensure higher reliability. This fact, coupled with the COTS approach, has resulted in the shift towards microsatellites,” says John, who was earlier with ISRO. However, he remarks that space-qualified microcontrollers and processors with high processing power are still not readily available, resulting in prohibitively high costs.

Digital IC technology is developing so fast that even nano, pico and femto satellites have become possible. Nanosats weigh between 1 and 10 kg, while pico and femto microsats have wet masses of 0.1 to 1 kg and 10 to 100 gm, respectively.

All for real, and well within reach
Apart from space research organisations like ISRO, NASA and DARPA, which have successfully launched small satellites of all scales, private companies are also investing heavily in this area and are now expecting great returns by contracting earth imagery data to customers.


Wanna play space blocks?

CubeSat, developed over a decade ago by professors from Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University to advance satellite design learning, has now become the de facto standard for building small satellites—forming the basis of several small satellites being built by NASA, private companies, and start-ups too!

The CubeSat is basically a standardised module, shaped as a cube with 10cm edges and weighing approximately 1.33 kg. It can be fitted with the required instruments and launched into space. A small satellite might consist of one or more CubeSats as building blocks, and it is common practice to describe micro and nano satellites by the number of CubeSat units they contain (e.g., Planet Labs’ test satellites sent up in April 2013 were 3U-CubeSats). Generally, satellites may be 1U, 2U, 3U or 6U. CubeSat-based satellites are deployed from a standard poly-picosatellite orbital deployer (P-POD). Endorsing CubeSat’s popularity as a building block of research spacecrafts, NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) provides opportunities for small satellite payloads to fly on rockets planned for upcoming launches. These CubeSats are flown as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions., an active non-profit organisation, continues to provide the community with not just a standard physical layout, design guidelines and a standard, flight-proven deployment system (P-POD), but also coordination of the required documents and export licences, integration and acceptance testing facilities with formalised schedules, shipment of flight hardware to the launch site and integration to the LV, and confirmation of successful deployment and telemetry information.

Talking about future plans at Planet Labs, Schingler reports, “We are launching a commercial constellation of 28 satellites at the end of the year. They will be taking photos of the earth. We hope to accurately assess changing landscapes. Our imagery will be an entirely new data layer. We hope to innovate at every part of the product to streamline delivery of imagery to our partners and customers. Currently, the average person doesn’t know what he or she can do with frequently-updated information about the changing planet. This shift in the industry will open up satellite imagery to more engineers and small tech firms.”

A glimpse of Planet Labs’ satellites
A glimpse of Planet Labs’ satellites

After successfully launching two experimental satellites, Planet Labs is confident about launching the 28-satellite constellation together on an Antares rocket, a new launcher built by the US-based Orbital Sciences Corporation, by the end of this year. The CubeSat-based, solar-powered satellites will form a tilted ring around the earth, and orbit at an altitude of 400 km. Since the satellites have no propulsion systems, they are likely to lose speed in two to five years, after which they will fall towards Earth and burn up, making way for a new constellation. While in operation, they will send their images to three or more ground stations, where the data will be processed and uploaded for customers to use.

The other key player in this space, is US-based Skybox Imaging, an information and analytics company that also promises reliable and frequent high-resolution imagery including what it claims to be the first-ever HD video of the earth. Skybox will be using a constellation of over 24 microsatellites, of which the first two are likely to be launched later this year using Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne launch vehicle. (According to Wikipedia, “Virgin Galactic is a company within Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which plans to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists, suborbital launches for space science missions and orbital launches of small satellites.”)

With small satellites becoming so popular, launch facilities are also emerging as a good business! Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, which can launch payloads of 100 kg into low-earth orbit, is one of the most talked-about facilities. While it might take some months to get into operation, several US-based companies, including GeoOptics, Skybox Imaging, Spaceflight Services and Planetary Resources, are said to have already contracted LauncherOne. Plus, Surrey Satellite Technology and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, the two largest manufacturers of small satellites, are also said to be developing satellite buses optimised to the design of LauncherOne. US-based Garvey Spacecraft, too, recently received funding to develop a clustered nano/microsatellite launch vehicle capable of delivering 20kg payloads into 450km circular orbits, based on its Prospector 18 suborbital launch vehicle technology. Boeing is also working on an air-launched three-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle concept capable of launching small payloads of 45 kg into low-earth orbit.

Students at the forefront
On the non-commercial front, a recent and revolutionary project that must be discussed is ArduSat, the first open source nanosatellite developed by Nanosatisfi LLC, an aerospace company founded by four graduate students in the US in 2012. Based on the CubeSat standard, Ardusat contains a set of Arduino boards and sensors. ArduSat was successfully launched this August, with a stated goal of providing people open access to space! Priya Kuber, managing director of Arduino India, says, “ArduSat is an Arduino satellite wherein Arduino users can test their code in space. It is exciting to know that now Indian students would be able to have the same access to space! ArduSat has tied up with Dhruva Space India, and we are partnering with them to teach space-oriented experiments in a fun and educative way (”

“A few universities have developed small satellites with the help of ISRO. SRMSAT and YOUTHSAT, launched by ISRO’s launch vehicles during 2011, are examples,” John points out.

Anna University successfully launched the first student-built Indian satellite in 2009. Called Anusat, this is a 60×60×60cm cube-shaped microsatellite that weighs 38 kg. The spin-stabilised satellite operates at 40W power using a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery and a body-mounted solar panel with GaAs cells, and communicates in the VHF/UHF band. It orbits at a height of 547 km with a 41-degree inclination and a period of 120 minutes, and is visible over Chennai four times a day, for around 10 minutes each time. Its primary payload comprises store and forward data communication (FSK 1.2kbps) while auxiliary payloads include technology validation of GPS receiver, a MEMS magnetometer and MEMS gyroscope.

Another example, YOUTHSAT, is the culmination of joint efforts by Indian and Russian students. It is one of the three small satellites that ISRO launched in 2011. It has a lift-off mass of 92 kg, and carries three payloads for the investigation of the composition, energetics and dynamics of the earth’s upper atmosphere. It has an orbit period of 101.35 minutes and an inclination of approximately 98 degrees. It features a three-axis body stabilised using sun and star sensors, a miniature magnetometer, miniature gyros, micro reaction wheels and magnetic torquers. It also has a solar array generating 230 watts and one 10.5Ah Li-ion battery as well as a paraffin actuator-based solar panel hold-down and release mechanism.

SRMSAT is a nanosatellite developed by Tamil Nadu-based SRM University under ISRO’s guidance (Courtesy: SRM University)
SRMSAT is a nanosatellite developed by Tamil Nadu-based SRM University under ISRO’s guidance (Courtesy: SRM University)

SRMSAT is a nanosatellite developed by Tamil Nadu-based SRM University under ISRO’s guidance. It weighs 10.9 kg and attempts to understand global warming and pollution levels in the atmosphere by monitoring carbon dioxide and water vapour. The satellite uses a grating spectrometer to observe the absorption spectrum over the 900nm to 1700nm infrared range.

Another exciting nanosatellite in this class is Jugnu, developed by IIT-Kanpur under ISRO’s guidance. The 3kg satellite carries an indigenously developed camera system for imaging the earth in the near infrared region and test image processing algorithms, as well as an indigenous MEMS-based inertial measurement unit (IMU).

From disaster recovery to grain pricing
Small satellites, including micro and nano ones, have a vast array of applications. “Remote sensing, propagation experiments, emergency store and forward communication, validation of new technologies in the fields of power systems, control techniques, propulsion systems, etc, are some of the applications where microsatellites can be of good use,” explains John. “It is also true that a shift towards microsatellites facilitates universities and industries to develop and validate new technologies,” he says.

Apart from government and research uses, it is interesting to note the potential for the commoditisation of small satellites, with earth imagery beginning to be recognised as a useful tool by other industries as well. According to Schingler of Planet Labs, “We see this industry becoming more important to both commercial and non-profit players. Receiving fresh data about the earth is a new capability that we haven’t seen before. The applications for our data are limitless, and every day when we read a newspaper, we find more use cases. For now, we are very focused on achieving our milestones.” He adds, “Industries that can benefit from the information include disaster monitoring and response, agriculture, real estate and construction, environmental monitoring and stewardship, financial services, insurance, scientific and academic research, conservation, humanitarian causes and mapping. We hope our data will help farmers optimise crop yields and conservationists monitor deforestation.”


Can a commercial smartphone be converted into a satellite?

In April this year, NASA launched three ‘smartphones’ into orbit. Known as PhoneSats, these were part of NASA’s ongoing mission to determine whether a consumer-grade smartphone can be used as the main flight avionics of a low-cost satellite. NASA engineers took a Google-HTC Nexus One smartphone running the Android operating system, and added satellite-necessities that a phone does not have, such as a larger Li-ion battery, a more powerful radio, and so on. Texting and calling facilities were disabled. And after some ingenious work, the off-the-shelf PhoneSats were ready with fast processors, versatile operating systems, multiple miniature sensors, high-resolution cameras, GPS receivers and several radios. The total cost of the components of all three satellites in the PhoneSats project was less than $7000 as the engineers relied on commercial hardware design and stuck to minimal mission objectives. The smartphones were housed in a standard CubeSat structure, and acted as the satellite’s onboard computer.

The sensors monitored the health of the unit, while the camera kept taking pictures, all of which were relayed back to earth for a period of two weeks, the estimated life of the satellites. The communications between the base station and the satellites were all available on the Web for microsat enthusiasts to monitor. After the estimated two weeks, the satellites dived towards the earth and burnt up, as expected. The team is now working on lower-cost prototypes, scheduled to be launched by the end of the year.

Are you a tad scared?
If things like cookies, supply chain tracking and location-based services raised privacy concerns, microsatellites and their imagery services is a prime candidate for raising the public privacy concerns. While it is a matter of concern that somebody might know when a strange car is parked outside your home or when there is a party happening on your terrace, government regulations do attempt to reduce threats to privacy to a certain extent.

“The privacy risks could be quite profound,” worries Edgar of Brown University, but goes on to elaborate on the checks and balances that might address citizens’ privacy concerns, “When the United States government uses classified imagery for domestic purposes, it has a strict legal process for approving such uses. First, lawyers analyse whether the imagery might constitute a search that would require a warrant (for example, infrared imagery that might reveal private activities inside a private building or imagery that can peer over a high wall inside a private space). Second, lawyers look into whether the imagery crosses any other legal boundaries. Without strict oversight, close satellite monitoring could pose all of the same risks as surveillance drones, or other spy devices that might invade people’s private space or monitor their activities. For example, a frequently-updated satellite image might show at what time my car is parked at my home, church or office, and this could be correlated with other data to fill in a picture of my daily activities.”

Asked about strict regulatory control to avoid invasion to peoples’ right to privacy, he remarks that, “This is a new area and so the answer is, unfortunately, no; not at the moment. Regulators have focused more on issues such as whether private aircrafts or spacecrafts pose any safety risks, either to other aircraft or to people on the ground, and haven’t focused on privacy issues. That may be changing, but the government is often slow to catch up with transformational technological change.”


Schingler, however, assures us that, “Space is a regulated industry, and we have to go through the proper channels and protocols to ensure compliance. We have in-house expertise dedicated to working with regulators. Plus, we have mitigated privacy risks by having satellite imagery with a resolution of 3-5 metres. This consideration was built into our models from the very beginning, when we set up our company. At this resolution, we can see a tree canopy, but not a person.” Skybox Imaging, however, has been allowed a closer resolution of one metre.

John guides us about the regulatory authorities in India: “Building and putting a satellite to use by a private company involves getting security clearance from the appropriate ministry of the government of India—for remote sensing, launching the satellite and frequency clearance for the use of the satellite. For these, one should approach the director, Public Relations Office, ISRO Headquarters, for advice. For frequency clearance, one must approach the WPC wing of the Department of Telecommunications.”

The age of small sats
Electronics is all around us today, and trend-watchers are declaring that the era of the Internet of Things has begun. Well, it looks like ‘things’ includes satellites too. We will soon have a network of connected ‘everything,’ from traffic signals and dishwashers, to industrial systems and freight cars, and satellites too. The day will come when we will no longer have to worry about outdated maps in our navigator device, or about missing a friend by a minute. Maps will be updated within minutes if there is a road diversion or even in case of a traffic jam! Insurance companies can review satellite images to see when a fire actually broke out; while an agriculturalist can use them to study meteorological changes and predict crop yields.

Truly, small satellites mean endless opportunities for governments, small and big businesses, and even for individuals.

Opportunities for businesses arise not just from the imagery data at their disposal, but also from the components and applications they could sell to this nascent industry. John says that remote sensing cameras and miniature spacecraft control components, such as reaction wheels, are just a few of the opportunities for electronics companies.

Small satellites show a lot of promise, but of course, like any emerging technology, they ought to be supported by the necessary standards, protocols and regulatory guidelines to ensure interoperability and fair competition, and to overcome privacy nightmares.

The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai


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