Monthly Archives: February 2014

Baby Satellites for Everybody

Two CubeSats are released into their orbits from the International Space Station (ISS). (Credit: NASA)

Two CubeSats are released into their orbits from the International Space Station (ISS).
(Credit: NASA)

Some days ago, on February 11, the crew onboard the International Space Station (ISS) has begun to spit out little satellites and release them into weightlessness. This, however, is no mistake, but quite an interesting project by “Planet Labs”. The idea is to place a fleet of 28 baby satellites called Flock-1 in a low earth orbit. Individual satellites of this Flock-1 are refered to as doves, by the way, and they belong to a satellite class by the name of CubeSat.

What’s remarkable about CubeSats is their size …or should I rather say “tininess”? A plain vanilla CubeSat spans just about 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters in the respective directions (approx. 3.94 x 3.94 x 3.94 inches) and weighs 1.33 kilograms maximum. Try to think of some communication satellites often having a spatial extent of more than 20 or 30 meters (65 or 100 feet)! Well, now the CubeSats really seem to be petite, don’t they?!

However, the Flock-1 satellites meet the measurements of so-called “3U” CubeSats, which just means “three units” CubeSats and corresponds to a volume of 30 x 10 x 10 cm, and thus they are about the size of an average loaf of bread. Even compared to my favourite bread, these mini satellites are equipped with quite a lot of technology. (Sorry, Bernd! ;-))

What will these CubeSats do for us? In what way do they differ from loafs?

The 28 satellites of the Flock-1 mission, waiting for their journey to the ISS. (Credit: Planet Labs)

The 28 satellites of the Flock-1 mission, waiting for their journey to the ISS.
(Credit: Planet Labs)

Flock-1 will photograph the Earth and grant public access to the picutures. Thus, the collected data won’t reside only in the hands of individual nations, companies, etc. (like it’s usually been so far), but instead every terrestrial will have it available.

We believe that the democratization of information about a changing planet is the mission that we are focused on, and that, in and of itself, is going to be quite valuable for the planet. One tenet that we have is to make sure that we produce more value than we actually capture, so we have an open principle within the company with respect to anyone getting access to the data.
(Robbie Schingler, Co-founder of Planet Labs)

The doves will automatically produce footage of the Earth’s surface and transmit it as soon as they fly over a ground station. Subsequently, the pictures will be put online and opened to the public.

It may easily be conceived that some fields of applications of the Flock-1 satellite fleet will possibly be, for example, disaster relief or improved agricultural yields in developing countries. Also, the data could be used to protect the global environment, e.g., by monitoring deforestation and the changes of polar ice caps.

On top of that, the revisit rate (this is the frequency with which the doves pass over a given area) of the new satellites will be “unprecedented among existing satellite systems in orbit”[1]. So bigger amounts of data and more up to date picture material will be collected.

The basic idea of the Flock-1 project – the provision of all the data for public usage – is laudable and a small step in the direction of the improvement of the world. Despite of heavily, albeit indirectly, benefitting from space flight and its developments in our daily lives anyway, soon it will also be possible to directly use satellite data on a grand scale in order to improve living conditions (e.g., in developing countries, as mentioned above).

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[1] http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/flock_1 (Click this link for further and general informations on this topic.)

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Addendum: Just some moments ago Koichi Wakata, a JAXA astronaut currently living onboard the ISS, tweeted the status quo of the CubeSat project:

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