Small satellites offer astronomers 'PC' access to the Universe

Apr 07, 2006

Small satellites are now ready to open up new avenues in astronomy, according to a presentation on Friday 7th April at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Leicester. Rapid advances in the capabilities of satellites smaller than a domestic washing-machine mean that they now have the pointing stability and accurate positioning needed to carry astronomical instruments, such as ultraviolet telescopes.

Stuart Eves of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) said, “We see small satellites as the ‘PCs of astronomy’. Like personal computers, the capabilities of our satellites have moved forward very rapidly over the past decade. Whilst there will always be a role for the big ‘mainframe computer’ satellites, which can carry the huge mirrors and complex pointing equipment needed for some astronomical experiments, small satellites can be developed very quickly and the costs are relatively modest. This means that astronomical experiments can be designed, launched and be delivering results in under two years.”

SSTL has already carried out studies for the European Space Agency for a Mars sample return mission and a Venus entry probe but the company is now keen to work with the astronomical community on probing the depths of the Universe.

“Our satellites can now provide high-precision pointing using an automatic star camera system to determine the orientation of the platform, large amounts of on-board data storage and high data downlink rates to return the observations from the sensors as quickly as possible,” said Eves. “We are also now able to operate several satellites orbiting in formation and could develop small satellite constellations for experiments that need rapid responses, e.g. studying gamma-ray bursts, or three-dimensional investigations of an area of space, e.g. monitoring the solar wind.”

Don Pollacco of Queen’s University Belfast said, “Small satellites are useful in that they can be dedicated to just one or two instruments. This means that tried and tested instruments can be launched into space to study a specific problem relatively cheaply. It makes sense that the UK’s technical expertise in small satellites should be combined with the expertise of the British astronomical community.”

The relatively low costs involved mean that small satellites can be funded by a single country. Canada’s MOST satellite, which was launched in 1993 and has carried out high-precision photometry of stars, has paved the way for a much larger contribution to astronomy from small-scale missions.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Explore further: Bad weather delays SpaceX launch with 3-D printer

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Experts: Mystery fireball was Russian satellite

Sep 17, 2014

People from New Mexico to Montana saw the bright object break apart as it moved slowly northward across the night sky. Witnesses described it as three "rocks" with glowing red and orange streaks.

Evidence for supernovas near Earth

Aug 27, 2014

Once every 50 years, more or less, a massive star explodes somewhere in the Milky Way. The resulting blast is terrifyingly powerful, pumping out more energy in a split second than the sun emits in a million ...

Recommended for you

Internet moguls Musk, Bezos shake up US space race

12 hours ago

The space race to end America's reliance on Russia escalated this week with a multibillion dollar NASA award for SpaceX's Elon Musk and an unexpected joint venture for Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos.

The Great Cold Spot in the cosmic microwave background

Sep 19, 2014

The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is the thermal afterglow of the primordial fireball we call the big bang. One of the striking features of the CMB is how remarkably uniform it is. Still, there are some ...

User comments : 0