Small, 'smart' satellite showcases cutting-edge technologies
A mini satellite launched by an EU-funded project is demonstrating a range of cutting-edge technologies to improve the performance, cost, stability and longevity of small space-based platforms for applications such as atmospheric monitoring, Earth imaging, communications and aerospace research.
© JohanSwanepoel - fotolia.com
The PEASSS CubeSat, weighing approximately three kilos and about the same size and shape as a carton of milk, constitutes a significant evolution in the development of small satellites that, until now, have mostly been deployed as disposable devices for short-term missions in low Earth orbit. It demonstrates how smart technologies can substantially improve the accuracy, power generation and resilience of small satellites.
CubeSats are expected to be in high demand for uses such as observing Earths surface and atmosphere, enabling communications and taking images for regional, border and security monitoring. They are also expected to become more widely used as compact and cheap orbital research platforms to test emerging aerospace technologies.
However, CubeSats are vulnerable to the extreme temperature changes that occur in space, which cause deformation and damage to components, reduce power generation, harm the accuracy of equipment and shorten the satellites useful lifespan.
To mitigate the problem, the EU-funded PEASSS project developed smart structures that use robust fibre optics to measure material deformation, enabling structural health, vibration, temperature and other system effects to be monitored without vulnerable wiring.
The key result of PEASSS is that there is now a functioning small satellite in orbit proving the viability of the advanced space technologies that were matured in the project, including lighter, cheaper and smarter components to enhance the performance and lower the cost of developing and deploying CubeSats, says project coordinator Matthew Maniscalco at TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.
Advancing alternative power in space
Measurements from the PEASSS CubeSat sensors are analysed with novel software and so-called piezoelectric actuators on board can then be used to make corrective changes to the mini satellite while in space, such as adjusting the angle of a camera or compensating for thermal and vibration effects.
The components can be powered through special generators that produce electricity when undergoing temperature fluctuations or subjected to mechanical stress, providing a renewable source of energy.
This marks an advance in alternative power generation in space, which could enable distributed sensor networks and other next-generation space technologies, while the improvements to pointing accuracy and reduced mechanical noise should improve all types of satellite observations, Maniscalco says. Furthermore, the space industry will benefit from lower cost satellite development and shorter development times for applications, with small satellites able to quickly and flexibly serve as testing platforms for new technologies.
In that vein, the results of PEASSS could be of use beyond the satellite and space industries, with the project team considering potential applications in the automotive and aviation industries such as the use of composite materials to reduce noise and fatigue in aircraft components.
The PEASSS team continues to monitor the performance of their innovative CubeSat, with some of the six project partners conducting ongoing collaborative research.
One outcome has been the integration of Active Space Technologies GmbH, a German developer of bespoke electro-mechanical systems for extreme harsh environments, into Sonaca Group, a Belgian aerospace firm, as a result of their collaboration in PEASSS and other EU-funded initiatives.