Smaller satellites make space exploration more affordable

By Elizabeth Latham, Journalist
Monday, 05 March, 2007

At a time when European science budgets are increasingly under pressure, British academia and industry representatives met in London to look at future opportunities for making greater use of low-cost satellites.

The general opinion at the meeting was that small satellites can be an effective way of achieving cheaper scientific space investigations.

"While it is recognised that some space missions can only be achieved using larger platforms, frontier science can be obtained by smaller, more defined satellites. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better," Prof Keith Mason, chief executive of the British Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), said.

"The miniaturised instrumentation produced for missions such as Rosetta and in development for ExoMars alongside the recent feasibility study for two lunar missions demonstrate the knowledge and expertise we have here in Britain. There is huge potential for industry and academia to work closer together to take this forward for future missions opportunities."

The advantages of producing small satellites are many. Not only can they be produced over a shorter timescale but they can cost less than 300 million euros compared with large scale missions costing more than 650 million euros. This relative cheapness creates opportunities for more frequent missions.

It has been suggested that small satellites allow more optimised missions by carrying a single primary instrument. This means that there are none of the compromise issues which often occur on larger missions carrying a diverse payload.

There is a great need for continuity of data, particularly with earth observation programs. The technology exists to obtain data but when a large mission comes to an end, inevitably there will be gaps in the data sets that could be critical when looking at earth monitoring studies.

This particular need could be addressed through greater use of numerous small satellites.

"With regard to radio communications, then the satellites are just as effective as picking up signals as larger ones," Gill Ormrod, PPARC spokesperson, said.

"Through the production of small satellites there will no doubt be increased knowledge transfer benefits from the technology which will impact on society," Nathan Hill, from PPARC's KITE Club Innovation Advisory Service and coordinator of the UK ESA Knowledge Transfer Programme, said.

"As well as looking for 'spin-outs' from science we are also encouraging 'spin in' whereby industry brings some of its novel technology onto the playing field. Technologies are developed further for use in space, value is added, and then the further developed technology is spun out again for a different application."

An example of this comes from the oil and gas sector where instrumentation developed for shallow and remote drilling in oilfields on earth has many of the same requirements as drilling and penetration instruments on the moon - in terms of robustness and autonomy. By working together, both sectors can benefit from advances in the combined technologies.

The PRARC has funded a lunar feasibility study of two robotic mission options to the surface of the moon focused on exploiting Britain's leadership in small satellites and miniaturised scientific instruments.

This exemplifies Britain's expertise in small satellites, robotics and miniaturised instruments and could provide a contribution to NASA's ambition of establishing a moon base by 2020.

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