Small Satellites—Some the Size of Postage Stamps—Are Transforming How Scientists Conduct Space-based Research

A new fleet of nanosatellites is zooming through space

Cordell Grant assembles the BRITE telescope, a nanosatellite. Image via the University of Toronto

Picture a telescope orbiting in space, and your mind probably flies to the Hubble Space Telescope. At roughly 43 feet long and weighing 25,000 pounds, its footprint is the size of a small house and it’s just a little shy of the weight of a subway car. But not all satellite telescopes are behemoths–one launched yesterday from India, designed and developed by the Space Flight Laboratory of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, is roughly the size of a cooler you’d bring to a picnic.

The telescope is part of the Bright Target Explorer (BRITE) mission, an effort designed to observe stars and record changes in their brightness over time. Launched into orbit above the masking effects of our atmosphere, the telescope and its simultaneously launched twin will focus on the brightest stars–such as those in well-known constellations like Orion and the Big Dipper–looking for pulsations and reverberations in brightness that indicate spots on a star, a planet or another celestial object crossing its orbit, or flickering energy intensities within the star itself. These flickers, called “starquakes,” give clues to the composition and internal structure of stars.

BRITE's telescopes are nanosatellites, meaning that they weigh less than ten kilograms. At seven kilograms–about as heavy as a large bowling ball–and measuring 20 centimeters on each side, they are the smallest telescopes in orbit. The cubic satellites did not require a dedicated rocket to get there–these hitched a ride on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Future launches of similar twin nanosatellites will help BRITE to become a satellite constellation that scans the sky for different wavelengths of light pulsing from stars.

Nanosatellites, part of a recent trend to conduct space-based science at low cost and with fast results, “can be developed quickly, by a small team and at a cost that is within reach of many universities, small companies and other organizations,” said Cordell Grant, manager of satellite systems for the Space Flight Laboratory, in a statement. “A nano-satellite can take anywhere from six months to a few years to develop and test,” he added. In contrast, Hubble took more than 12 years to design and construct before it launched with space shuttle Discovery in 1990.

But nanosatellites aren’t the only kind of small satellites out there. Here are some other tiny orbiters:


Sprites, a femtosatellite, are about the size of a postage stamp. Image via Cornell University

First launched on the last flight of Endeavour, sprites–also called femtosatellites–look about the size of a postage stamp. Developed by Cornell University scientists, these satellites are in interplanetary space collecting data about chemistry, radiation and particle impacts. Lead engineer Mason Peck, now a chief technologist at NASA, told the Cornell University Chronicle that “Their small size allows them to travel like space dust.” He added, “Blown by solar winds, they can ‘sail’ to distant locations without fuel.”


The grapefruit-sized CubeSat, a type of picosatellite, measures 10 centimeters on each side. “I got a 4-inch beanie baby box and tacked on some solar cells to see how many would fit on the surface,” Bob Twiggs, the satellite’s lead designer, told “I had enough voltage for what I needed so I decided that would be the size.” Developed in 1999 with the help of Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University, along with students at Stanford University while Twigg was a professor there, CubeSats are now the go-to small satellite. They appeal to universities–at roughly $65,ooo to $80,000 a pop, they can fit within research budgets, allowing students the opportunity to design and build a research satellite.

Some, like GeneSat-1 provides life support for bacterium and are aimed at helping scientists learn more about how spaceflight affects the human body. Another–SwissCube-1–examines nightglow in Earth’s atmosphere. Launched alongside BRITE, the STRaND-1–a string of 3 CubeSats stacked together–is the first smartphone-powered satellite ever launched into space. The Android phone that serves as the device’s brain will run apps that will photograph its orbit, monitor the Earth’s magnetic field, and–perhaps most exciting–will allow people to upload videos of themselves screaming to test whether sounds broadcasted in space can be heard by the satellite playing them.  Other CubeSats in development will assist researchers understand space weather, phenomena that could short out the other satellites that orbit Earth.

It’s interesting to remember that the first satellite–Sputnik-1, launched in 1957–was a 23-inch diameter sphere. These nano-, pico-, and femto-satellites harken back to those roots. But their size, cost, and ability to be developed quickly may make them the most useful satellites of the future. Hopefully they won’t lead to oodles more space junk!

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