Small but Many Satellites Launch into Space for Commercial Use

The fact that low Earth orbit is becoming more populated presents new collision avoidance and traffic management issues for those constructing and managing satellites.

Astronomers have been outraged by swarms of tiny satellites blocking the sky, yet their potential for humanity is remarkable.

Starship, one of SpaceX’s most ambitious projects to date, definitely packs a punch when it comes to rockets.

With over 100 tonnes of payload and set for orbital testing as early as 2022, this massive, entirely reusable device is intended to one day assist humanity in colonizing Mars.

Closer to home, it might aid SpaceX in swiftly assembling constellations of tiny commercial satellites.

Starlink satellites from SpaceX are already supplying high-speed internet to faraway regions.

Starship will launch satellites into orbit at a far reduced cost. It will cost between $2 and $10 million each launch and will be capable of transporting up to 400 Starlink satellites at once.

A partly reusable Falcon 9 rocket launches around 50 Starlink satellites for approximately $50 million.

Even if there are delays, Starship or a similar system will probably start transporting huge numbers of satellites to orbit soon.

What Does this Signify for us Here on Earth?

This is anticipated to provide more access to satellite-based services with higher quality and cheaper costs for customers.

The internet coverage of Starlink will increase, and other more minor but still significant constellations, such as OneWeb, will provide broadband internet, geodesy, navigation, communication, and weather monitoring and forecasting.

Indeed, a dispersed network of tiny satellites provides more extensive physical coverage, higher network resiliency, and substantially faster data transfer rates.

It is also feasible to capture a significant amount of high-quality data. And SpaceX and OneWeb aren’t the only companies looking to the sky.

Small businesses, institutions, and public groups, in addition to big-tech firms, will be able to pay to launch their satellites.

With SpaceX planning a considerable fleet of Starships, Starship and its cousins will most certainly be offered to others the same way that the SmallSat Rideshare Program utilizes Falcon 9.

From 3D-printing biological tissues and organs to producing protein crystals for medicines, several sectors will try to transfer their capabilities to orbit to take advantage of the benefits of zero gravity.

Scientific experiments that are affordable to research institutes of all sizes will lead to discoveries and technological improvements.

The fact that low Earth orbit is becoming more populated presents new collision avoidance and traffic management issues for those constructing and managing satellites.

There are now over 7,000 satellites circling the Earth, some of which are functioning and some of which are dormant.

The development of Starship has enabled SpaceX alone to adjust its original projections from 12,000 to 42,000 satellites – a 600 percent increase on the total number of satellites launched to date.

The first constellation collision avoidance maneuver was executed in 2019 by the European Space Agency’s Aeolus satellite, which utilized its thrusters to avoid colliding with one of the Starlink satellites.

Constellation collision-avoidance tactics are likely to become a regular occurrence in the near future.

In addition to worldwide control systems capable of coordinating such a vast satellite population in the future, satellite propulsion systems are needed to assure maneuvering and, more crucially, de-orbiting at the end of their service life to avoid becoming space garbage.

Electronics shrinking has enabled engineers to bundle functionalities that were previously only accessible in much bigger satellites into something the size and weight of a microwave oven.

What Satellites will be Fueled By?

Rapid prototyping and advanced manufacturing have helped simplify and reduce the cost of development and production processes, making them accessible to small teams.

However, the miniaturization of propulsion thrusters poses various obstacles. Because of their higher efficiency, electric propulsion thrusters are used by many of the tiny satellites.

However, when they are downsized, electric propulsion rockets become less efficient. Then there are the difficulties with propellant gases and their complicated tanks, valves, tubes, and gauges.

Xenon is both pricey and in great demand. Because krypton is less efficient, extra fuel must be carried on board.

On the other hand, Iodine might be a game-changer for small satellites. It is a solid fuel that combines simplicity, cheap cost, and decent efficiency. Recently, solid Iodine was successfully tested in space.

The concept effectively used Iodine’s propensity to transition from solid to gas at shallow temperatures, allowing the fuel to be stored without a tank and subsequently converted into a gas with little energy input.

Because of the rapid re-solidification of the gas, once the heating was switched off, the designers could eliminate intake valves, greatly simplifying the system.

However, these and comparable technologies will need more improvement before they can completely fulfill the objectives of commercial constellation satellites.

Despite the thrilling prospect of hundreds of small satellites orbiting the globe, giving services to humanity, and expertly avoiding collision, not everyone is excited about this future.

An oversupply of gleaming satellites in lower orbit may physically obscure professional and amateur stargazers.

Radioastronomy

Radioastronomy is another area of interest. Reducing the negative impact of mega-constellations on radio telescopes is a considerably more difficult challenge to address if it can be solved at all.

It remains to be seen how 42,000 spacecraft, even if shadowed, would affect our capacity to continue making findings of distant galaxies and the big bang.

It’s possible that the same satellites interfering with our capacity to explore the cosmos from Earth will be the ones to give the next round of astronomical discoveries.

In astrophysics, for example, interacting satellites may behave as several eyes spread by hundreds of kilometers, watching the Earth and distant planets from various angles and obtaining information that a single satellite cannot.

We have the technology and the motivation to extend our physical reality into Earth’s orbits. Despite the bumps and obstacles along the road, exploring and exploiting near-Earth space will be the next step in humanity’s global expansion.

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