LOGAN, Utah — Twenty years ago, most satellites were as big as Volkswagens and were only launched by NASA. Now many are the size of a shoebox. Since they’re so small, they’re cheaper to build and put into orbit.
This week at the SmallSat conference in Logan, engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs came from more than 40 countries (and NASA) gathered to talk about the latest technology.
One company, AC Clyde Space of Scotland, shared a project they’re working on for a client that would detect wildfires. CEO Alfonso Barreiro said there are vast areas of wilderness in Canada that are uninhabited, and a satellites the size of a board game could monitor for fires.
Darren Rowen of The Aerospace Corporation showed a shoebox-sized satellite that just hit a laser communication milestone, hitting speeds only the big satellites could before. He said the faster speeds could help get weather information and other images back to earth even faster than before, for lower cost.
NASA is moving along and supporting small satellite projects; NASA Mission Integration Coordinator Kris Nelson said the agency has sent more than 60 small satellites into orbit. Most are from universities, but even elementary schools can launch the cheaper format. She also assured that space would not get crowded as NASA requires small satellite builders to engineer them to eventually die and fall out of orbit.
The smaller sizes are allowing more and more companies to try out tech in space. Carrie O’Quinn, Senior Project Engineer with The Aerospace Corporation, said 25-30 years ago you had to be a nation-state to launch anything into space. Now you can get there faster and cheaper, allowing your energy and money to be invested in the project’s technology itself, not how it might get into space.
O’Quinn also pointed out how space technology makes earth technology like our cellphones work better, and vice-versa. The next generation of phones will alternate between satellite and tower-based receivers.