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Space Blog

The building blocks of a future in space

In the popular imagination, spacecraft and satellites are still the stuff of 1950s science fiction: large in scale and perhaps more shining matter than technological substance. However, the time has come to radically alter how we think about the scale of space technology. After all, the iPhone is infinitely more powerful than the computers that helped us put the first man on the moon! The contrast in scale between those two tech-icons would have seemed mindboggling a generation ago, but today, small is powerful. The unprecedented power of mobile technology fired up the imagination of the engineers at SSTL and its academic counterpart, the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), leading to the ongoing STRaND-1 mission. The miniature scale of this smartphone-powered satellite presented a question to the STRaND (Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstrator) team: What might be possible if we could send multiple nanosatellites into orbit and dock them together as the "building blocks" for a satellite of infinite scale and flexibility? This intriguing question has led to STRaND-2, a twin-satellite mission to test an in-orbit docking system ­"“ this time employing XBOX Kinect technology. The SSTL team is developing identical twin satellites, each measuring just 30cm (3 unit Cubesat) in length and using the XBOX wireless games controller to scan space and provide the satellites with 3D spatial awareness. The twin satellites will dock together, and are envisaged as prototype "˜space building blocks’: intelligent components that could be stacked together in multiple configurations to form larger and more powerful, modular spacecraft. Docking systems have never before been deployed for missions on such a small scale; and the possible advantages of this new concept in space technology are both broad and exciting. Fundamentally, they are relatively low-cost; so the cost of building larger space structures such as telescopes could be considerably reduced along with the possibility of mission failure "“ with a modular system the failure of one component doesn’t mean blanket catastrophe.
The International Space Station (ISS) is an engineering marvel, built up from large modular spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Doug Liddle, Head of Science commented:
"This is the International Space Station (ISS) done small "“ we could build bigger aperture telescopes, upgrade satellites in-orbit, or reconfigure satellites. This approach helps solve the limitations of nanosatellites by distributing power, downlink or thermal functions to synthesize the capabilities of a 1 tonne satellite."
The results of STRaND-2 could also have radical impact on projects such the James Webb telescope, as Dr Chris Bridges, SSC project lead, explains:
"Our docking Nanosatellites could build large and sophisticated structures such as space telescopes. They could be re-configured depending on the mission objectives and upgrade in-orbit with the latest available technology."
The type of system-upgrading principle as described by Dr. Bridges is likely to sound very familiar to the average Earth-bound technology consumer. Whereas in the past so much of the consumer technologies we take for granted owe their origins to space technology’s development, the enormous investment in mobile technology R&D is providing both the inspiration and the technology for a future of cost-effective, fast evolving and flexible space infrastructure. You can follow the exploits of the team on the STRaND Facebook page and @SurreyNanosats on Twitter.





30 May 20120 Comments1 Comment

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