Minisatellite surge spurs downlink infrastructure

Joshua Semeter needed a data plan. Not for his smartphone, but for his satellite. Semeter, an engineering professor at Boston University, is the principal investigator for ANDESITE, a toaster-sized satellite destined for low-Earth orbit. After it launches in November, the satellite will eject a cloud of eight even smaller sensors that will track how the electrical currents that feed Earth’s aurorae vary and how they respond to solar activity. Semeter hopes the mission will run for at least 2 weeks and send home a gigabyte of magnetic readings.

If, that is, he can figure out how to get all those data back to Earth. ANDESITE and hundreds of other recently launched CubeSats—minisatellites pieced together like Lego blocks—have created a data bottleneck. “It’s all well and good to build cheap satellites,” Semeter says. “But as soon as you put a data geyser on one, like a camera, you need a high data rate and substantial infrastructure to retrieve the information.” Now, traditional and startup companies as well as the military and government agencies are jumping into the fledgling market. They are building out or buying into global antenna networks and testing more capable downlink technologies and architectures.

When the first generation of CubeSats launched in the early 2000s, they transmitted a trickle of largely perfunctory bookkeeping data with standard low-power radios. “We were basically doing the same thing, using the same thing, as the ham radio guys,” says engineer Bob Twiggs of Morehead State University in Kentucky, who co-developed the CubeSat standard—10-centimeter cubes that serve as building blocks for many small satellites. Twiggs and his students were able to pull down their data with amateur-grade antennas—spindly, wiry things 2 or 3 meters across, like television aerials of yore. By contrast, today’s minisatellite swarms have power to spare and data-hungry sensors, forcing developers to invest in bigger radio dishes that can handle faster transfers.


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