Aug 27, 2010

Small could be the next big thing in satellite tech

Estimated Article Reading Time: 2 min.

Bangalore, Aug. 27. It happened with our desktop computers shrinking into laptops and palm-sized gadgets and our mobile phones getting tinier. In the satellite industry too, ‘small’ could be the next big thing in the coming years.

A small satellite can equally suit communications, earth observation or surveillance, disaster monitoring or scientific experiments — the jobs that its bigger cousins do. It would weigh a few hundred kilos versus the 2-to-10-tonne giants that circle the earth today.

‘Smallsats’ cost less, weigh less, can be built fast and launched quickly in multiples and pack in just as much punch, according to Mr D.V.A. Raghav Murthy, ISRO’s Project Director for Small Satellites.

“They can achieve 90 per cent of what big satellites can at five per cent of the cost and do 17 per cent of their tasks at one per cent of the cost,” Mr Koteswara Rao, Director, Laboratory for Electro-Optics Systems at ISRO, corroborated.

A growing number of Governments, companies and user industries built around them are apparently warming up to their charms.

If India has had its IMS-1 and the upcoming IMS-2, both carrying the latest technologies in earth observation, Russia, the US and Israel are known to have small, short-life military spy satellites that can be quickly put into orbit.

Classed as nano or piko; micro (up to 100 kg) or mini (up to 500 kg), or the 10-cm ‘cubesats’, small sats cost under Rs 1 crore in India compared to Rs 200-300 crore for larger 2-tonne class satellites, Mr Murthy said at a session on small satellites at the Bengaluru Space Expo here.

Universities are eyeing smallsats as good educational tools for engineering students. ISRO, which recently launched StudSat, one such student satellite by Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh engineering students, has got inquiries from 22 institutions/universities and is trying to tell them to team up rather than each have a satellite.

IIT-Kanpur’s Jugnu and IIT-Bombay’s Pratham are in the pipeline, while Anna University’s Anusat was the first such Indian student satellite to go into orbit.

ISRO has launched many small satellites mainly for experimental purposes such as remote sensing, atmospheric studies, payload development, orbit control and recovery technology.

Dr Susmita Mohanty, Mumbai-based founder and CEO of space start-up Earth2Orbit India Pvt Ltd, said nano and small satellites for various purposes were showing a growth rate of at least 30 per cent a year led by the US and there would be 415 satellites in a near-earth orbit by 2014.

Earth2Orbit, which is an informal overseas marketing associate for ISRO’s earth imageries, also wants to bring in small satellites to be launched on the PSLV, which is emerging as a favourite in this band, she said. The smallsat launch business was pegged at $160 billion a year and the Indian workhorse launcher, she said, should capture at least 20 per cent of this business. Businesses are building around small sats. SSTL or Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, the dedicated smallsat company now owned by Europe’s spacecraft major EADS Astrium, is building a small 200-kg spacecraft for Kazakhstan to support land mapping and resource management and planning. Launch majors such as Space X are eyeing these opportunities.