The Future of Satellites
In the more than five decades following the launch of Sputnik, satellites, as well as their budgets, have tended to get bigger. The United States, for example, has spent $200 billion on its military satellite program since its inception and now, despite the investment, has a fleet of aging devices without many replacements waiting in the wings [source: The New Atlantis]. Many experts fear that building and deploying large satellites is simply not sustainable, at least not by taxpayer-funded government agencies. One solution is to turn over satellite programs to private interests, such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or other space companies, which often don't suffer the same bureaucratic inefficiencies as NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Another solution involves shrinking the size and complexity of satellites. Scientists at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University have been working since 1999 on a new type of satellite, called CubeSat, that relies on building blocks as small as 4 inches (10 centimeters) on a side. Each cube receives off-the-shelf components and can be combined with other cubes, usually from different teams, to make a more complex payload. By standardizing the design and spreading the development costs to multiple parties, the costs of the satellite don't escalate as greatly. A single CubeSat spacecraft might cost less than $100,000 to develop, launch and operate [source: Pang].
In April 2013, NASA put this basic principle to the test when it launched three CubeSats built around commercial smartphones. The goal was to place the micro-satellites in orbit for a short time and collect some photographs and system data from the phones. NASA launched the satellites on April 21, and they re-entered Earth's atmosphere six days later. Now the agency is looking at how they can deploy a vast network of CubeSats for a coordinated, long-duration mission.
Big or small, future satellites must be able to communicate efficiently with Earth-based stations. Historically, NASA has relied on radio frequency (RF) communication, but RF is reaching its limit as demand for more capacity increases. To overcome this obstacle, NASA scientists have been developing a two-way communication system based on lasers instead of radio waves. The equipment to run the test hitched a ride on NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, which launched in September 2013 and headed for the moon, where it began to orbit and collect information on the lunar atmosphere. On Oct. 18, 2013, researchers made history when they used a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 239,000 miles (384,633 kilometers) between the moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second [source: Buck].
For more information on satellites and related topics, check out the links below.
Author's Note: How Satellites Work
Don't get me wrong, it's great to be a beneficiary of satellite technology. But I can't help but feel a little sad when I look at images showing the hundreds of satellites buzzing around Earth's beautiful blue disc. In some of those images, our planet looks like a Chia Pet, sprouting an ungainly mop of man-made hair. – William Harris
- How did the U.S. shoot down its spy satellite?
- How GPS Receivers Work
- How Hubble Space Telescope Works
- How Telescopes Work
- How Comets Work
- How Digital Radio Will Work
- How Radio Works
- What is a keyhole satellite and what can it really spy on?
- How does satellite Internet operate?
- How can I track the NASA's Starshine satellite?
- Beatty, J. Kelly. "Take a 'Sat-seeing' Tour." Sky & Telescope. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/satellites/Sat-seeing_Tour.html
- Boeing Defense, Space and Security. "Boeing 601 Fleet." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.boeing.com/boeing/defense-space/space/bss/factsheets/601/601fleet.page?
- The Boeing Company. "2012 Annual Report." (Oct. 22, 2013) https://materials.proxyvote.com/Approved/097023/20130301/CMBO_157699/
- Buck, Joshua. "NASA Laser Communication System Sets Record with Data Transmissions to and from Moon." NASA. Oct. 22, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/october/nasa-laser-communication-system-sets-record-with-data-transmissions-to-and-from/#.UnayBpRAQcx
- Buis, Alan. "Long-Running Jason-1 Ocean Satellite Takes Final Bow." Jet Propulsion Laboratory. July 3, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2013-213
- Cain, Fraser. "How many satellites are in space?" Universe Today. Oct. 24, 2013 (Jan. 4, 2014) http://www.universetoday.com/42198/how-many-satellites-in-space/
- Center for Space Physics, Boston University. "TERRIERS Mission." May 26, 1999. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.bu.edu/satellite/spacecraft/
- GlobalCom Satellite Phones. "The Cost of Building and Launching a Satellite." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.globalcomsatphone.com/hughesnet/satellite/costs.html
- de Selding, Peter B. "World's Largest Commercial Satellite Launched." Space.com. July 1, 2009. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.space.com/6920-world-largest-commercial-satellite-launched.html
- Durning, John. "About Webb's Orbit." NASA James Webb Space Telescope. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/orbit.html
- The Editors of The New Atlantis. "The Future of Satellites." The New Atlantis. Fall 2003. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-future-of-satellites
- Futron Corporation. "Space Transportation Costs: Trends in Price Per Pound to Orbit 1990-2000." White Paper. Sept. 6, 2002. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.futron.com/upload/wysiwyg/Resources/Whitepapers/Space_Transportation_Costs_Trends_0902.pdf
- Goddard Space Flight Center. "Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://esc.gsfc.nasa.gov/267/271.html
- Irons, James R. "Landsat Science." NASA. Oct. 30, 2013. (Nov. 1, 2013) http://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/
- Kaufman, Rachel. "Bread-Loaf Size Satellites to Probe Atmosphere, Deep Space." National Geographic Magazine. Aug. 8, 2012. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/08/120807-cubesat-satellites-space-science/?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_us_dr_w#
- Lockheed Martin. "The Satellite Site." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.thetech.org/exhibits/online/satellite/
- Lubchenco, Jane and Jack Hayes. "A Better Eye on the Storm." Scientific American. May 2012.
- MacRobert, Alan M. "The Stellar Magnitude System." Sky & Telescope. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.skyandtelescope.com/howto/basics/Stellar_Magnitude_System.html
- Martin, James. "Long Duration Exposure Facility." CNET. Nov. 12, 2012. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://news.cnet.com/2300-11386_3-10014512-16.html
- McClintock, Jack. "Communications: Harold Rosen." Discover Magazine. Nov. 9, 2003. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://discovermagazine.com/2003/nov/communications#.UmbiuflwpBk
- McGrath, Dylan. "NASA's 'PhoneSat' program points to satellites of the future." EDN Network. June 12, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/now-hear-this/4416264/NASA-s--PhoneSat--program-points-to-satellites-of-the-future-
- NASA. "Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 Mission Overview." May 14, 2008. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ostm/overview/index.html#.UnUPLVWzKph
- NASA. "Shuttle Radar Topography Mission." Jan. 20, 2000. (Jan. 8, 2014). https://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/STS-99.pdf
- NASA Education. "Escape Velocity: Fun and Games." April 10, 2009. (Jan. 9, 2014) http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/k-4/features/F_Escape_Velocity.html
- NASA Orbital Debris Program. "Orbital Debris Frequently Asked Questions." March 2012. (Jan 8, 2014) http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/faqs.html#3
- The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS). (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/index.html
- Office of Satellite and Product Operations. "Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES)." June 3, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.ospo.noaa.gov/Operations/GOES/index.html
- Onion, Amanda. "The Future of Satellites and Forensics." ABC News. Feb. 26, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=98076
- National Geographic. "Orbital Objects." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/solar-system/orbital/#close-modal
- Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim and Bob Twiggs. "Citizen Satellites." Scientific American. February 2011.
- Peat, Chris. Heavens Above. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.heavens-above.com/?lat=0&lng=0&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=UCT
- Perez, Jake. "Eye in the Sky." National Geographic Magazine. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/eye/satellites.html
- Powell, Corey S. "Spotting Satellites in the Night Sky." Discover Magazine. Sept. 26, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://discovermagazine.com/2013/oct/22-satellite-spotting#.UmbglPlwpBk
- Riebeek, Holli. "Catalog of Earth Satellite Orbits." Sept. 4, 2009. (Jan. 9, 2014) http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/OrbitsCatalog/
- Roth, Joshua. "Observing Iridium Flares." Sky & Telescope. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/projects/3307166.html?page=1&c=yStillman, Dan. "What Is a Satellite?" NASA Education. Apr. 13, 2010. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/what-is-a-satellite-58.html#.UmboOvlwpBl
- Union of Concerned Scientists. "Satellites: Types, orbits, countries, and debris." May 17, 2006. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/technical_issues/satellites-types-orbits.html
- Union of Concerned Scientists. "UCS Satellite Database." Sept. 13, 2013. (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/space_weapons/technic al_issues/ucs-satellite-database.html
- Wayana Software. "Satellites History." (Oct. 22, 2013) http://www.geosats.com/sathist.html