The sphere of commercial satellites is about to undergo a revolutionary development. Satellites are going to become an inexpensive tiny product that anyone will be able to purchase and operate. Prof. Haim Eshed explains in an interview to Calcalist how the picosatellite, priced at about $1,000, is going to change our world, no less so than the smartphone has done.
The new generation of picosatellites with a mass of approximately 1 kilogram [2.2 pounds] is already here — and it is going to change the way we perceive space. In the last year, universities in Britain, Japan and the United States developed smartphone-based PhoneSat satellites. Their price has subsequently dropped from hundreds of millions of dollars to a mere $1,000.
In the near future, any entrepreneur interested in searching for oil or jewels anywhere on Earth will be able to find in the nearby neighborhood shop a small satellite for carrying out a seismological survey. It can also come handy in the case of the collapse of communication networks in the aftermath of an earthquake or other disaster. A number of picosatellites launched into space is all that cellular network operators will need to restore communication. Similarly, such satellites may be helpful for road traffic monitoring by police, in major events, for instance. A small photographing satellite in every police station will do the job.
The vision of miniaturized or small satellites has been promoted for several decades now by Israel Prize laureate Haim Eshed, one of the pioneers of the Israeli aerospace industry, who was to address on Tuesday [Nov. 20] the International Aerospace 2012 Conference organized by the Technologies Group [in Jerusalem]. Eshed claimed as far back as 30 years ago that Israel should focus on the development of pocket satellites.
“In the past, the aerospace industry was dominated by the super powers. They were interested in ever bigger and more advanced satellites. However, in view of the [international] economic crisis, people are realizing that small size, too, has its advantages,” Eshed told Calcalist. “We have been doing it for 30 years now, and we are ahead of the rest of the world.”
Satellite for assembly from commercial off-the-shelf components available in any electronics shop
“The picosatellites are a fast-developing technology,” Eshed explained. It is a satellite the size of a paper clip box. And it has all been enabled thanks to the huge progress made in the field of sensors. Ultimately, we will reach the point where we will be able to install an entire satellite system on one single chip.” Even today there are already propulsion systems smaller than a coin, small engines that may nevertheless be used to divert a satellite from its course.
According to Eshed, an array of miniaturized satellites working together in formation can provide the same performance offered by large and expensive satellites at a fraction of their cost, as the miniaturized satellites can be assembled from commercial off-the-shelf components available, at least in part, in any electronics shop.
Such formations of miniaturized satellites can send back to Earth high-resolution photos, provide communication services, look for minerals, map roads and traffic jams, track down suspects and animals and even establish a new GPS [Global Positioning System] and navigation network — in the development of which the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans invested billions of dollars in the past.
“It it the same way it was with the iPhone. A decade ago we could not even imagine the capabilities embodied in something like that. In any event, as long as the picosatellites are not made available to everyone we will not be able to appreciate the change they have made,” Eshed added.
Nowadays there is awareness of the problem of “space debris” — the collection of defunct satellites [and other man-made objects that no longer serve any useful purpose] in orbit around Earth and of the potential collision risk they pose to operational spacecraft and other satellites, Aren’t picosatellites liable to worsen the situation?
“Everybody is aware today of the immense importance of dealing with space debris. We too are working on it together with [the Israeli defense technology company] Rafael [Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.]. Even the Chinese understand it. Without space, the international economy would slip back 50 years. There are all sorts of solutions to the problem. Thus, for instance, a picosatellite can be launched towards a larger satellite that needs repair and fix its failures. A small satellite can also be used to attach tiny engines to obsolete satellites and other space debris and push them back into the atmosphere.”
Given the low cost of picosatellites, they may be used for short-term space missions, even for brief sorties of several days or a few hours into space. A new American company is currently offering small satellite launching services for a mere $8,000.
Turning space into a lucrative source of revenue
According to Eshed, Israel has a number of significant advantages over other countries in the world and if the State of Israel recognizes the potential inherent in miniaturized satellites and wisely invests in it, it can be one of the four leading countries in the sphere of civilian space technologies, the way it is currently in the military sphere.
“There is need for low-cost and easy to implement launching solutions. We have the capability. Take Iron Dome, for example. It is unparalleled worldwide.” As to the manufacture of miniaturized satellites, Eshed notes that Israel should focus on the algorithmic aspect of the capability of an array of picosatellites to work together in formation, where she has the edge. “When it comes to algorithms, to the design of the systems that are to manage the fleets of satellites, we have always had a clear advantage.” The manufacture itself should not be a problem either. Israel has already specialized in the manufacture of small satellites — especially for communication and military purposes.
Thanks to the picosatellites, what looked in the past implausible or even verging on science fiction will become reality soon. Universities will be able to launch research satellites to perform experiments. The American company Bigelow Aerospace will start launching next year temporary space stations for rent at the cost of only one million dollars — for the purpose of substance research in zero gravity conditions.
The next phase, which may be implemented within a decade, will be the mapping of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter by planting thousands of satellites throughout the asteroid belt. There are huge quantities of metals and rare minerals in space whose value is estimated at hundreds of trillions of dollars. Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt has already invested over one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000) in an asteroid mining company.
“Picosatellites will be able to map asteroids, to identify those that have precious metals, to place engines on them and direct them towards Earth. It is quite possible. It is no science fiction.”
Satellites all over and in a short while asteroids as well. Doesn’t it pose a serious security risk?
“I don’t believe that anyone will dare do something [to jeopardize us] in space. It is like an atom bomb. You may threaten to use it, but you would never use it, as the repercussions would be too far-reaching. We should all strive to keep space open to all. And in my opinion that’s the way it’s going to be. Otherwise, our [global] economy will collapse. Even the Chinese are not that crazy. At the end of the day, it is us, human beings, who will have to decide whether we are going to use technology for better or worse.”