Humankind successfully sent its first artificial satellites into the Earth’s orbit in 1957, the USSR’s Sputnik. Since then, the world’s superpowers, led by their governments, launched thousands of satellites, competing in a race to explore space in a series of increasingly ambitious and complex projects.
Up to the nineties, space technology has tended to become increasingly large and sophisticated, accessible only to the space agencies of the world’s most developed countries or at the service of major corporations.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Ansari X-Prize competition was launched to aid the development of commercial space exploration. The award was obtained by SpaceShipOne in 2004, which became the first space vehicle not subsidized by any government, starting the new space race.
New space race is based on a philosophy of creating less expensive satellites in shorter periods of time, thanks to the falling costs and miniaturization of electronic parts. With nanosatellites, the benefits that were traditionally reserved exclusively for large companies or space agencies with vast financial resources have been democratized and are now accessible to companies of all types and sizes.
How Big is a Nanosatellite?
Artificial satellites vary in size and cost depending on the target use. They can be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or as huge as the ISS. According to NASA, “in terms of mass, a nanosat or nanosatellite is anything that weighs between 1 and 10 kilograms”.
Satellite types according to mass:
- Large satellites: More than 1,000 kg
- Medium-sized satellites: 500-1,000 kg
- Small satellites:
- Minisatellite: 100-500 kg
- Microsatellite: 10-100 kg
- Nanosatellite: 1-10 kg
- Picosatellite: Less than 1 kg
Standards are currently being developed in experimental format for picosatellites, such as PocketQubes, Sun Cubes or TubeSats.
With continuous advances in miniaturization and the increasing capacity of electronic technology and the use of satellite constellations, nanosatellites are increasingly capable of conducting commercial missions that previously required microsatellites. For example, a 6U CubeSat standard has been proposed to allow a constellation of 35 Earth imaging satellites of 8 kg (18 lb) to replace a constellation of five RapidEye 156 kg (344 lb.) Imaging Satellites from Earth, at the same mission cost, with significantly longer visitation times: each area of the globe can be imaged every 3.5 hours instead of once every 24 hours with the RapidEye constellation. The faster visit times are a significant improvement for nations responding to disasters, which was the purpose of the RapidEye constellation.