Top 10 cool satellite projects

Whether they are monitoring the movement of Great White sharks swimming off the coast of Massachusetts or looking for asteroids streaking towards Earth, satellites are, by their very definition, cool. Here we take a look at some of the most recent technology advances and deployments in recent months.

Related story: Faster, more affordable satellite communications spark new services


Jaws : When Great White sharks were recently spotted off of Chatham, Mass., scientists used the opportunity to tag the huge swimmers with electronic tags that use satellite technology to record their travels. The tags are known as PAT (pop-up archival transmitting) tags that attach to the dorsal fin of the shark and record its actions via a the Argos research satellite network. According to researchers, PAT tags do not have to be recovered. Rather, after a predetermined time, they break away from the fish and float to the surface, and then transmit data to Argos satellites.

NASA's moon blaster

NASA's moon blaster : On its current space scouting mission, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is using a pumped-up communications device to deliver 461GB of data and images per day, at a rate of up to 100Mbps. As the first high-data-rate K-band transmitter to fly on a NASA spacecraft, the 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is making it possible for NASA scientists to receive massive amounts of images and data about the moon's surface and environment in preparation for a possible landing there in the future.

Satellites on the cheap

Satellites on the cheap : Small, inexpensive cube-shaped satellites could be all the space rage if researchers have their way. The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to SRI International to tackle the first mission of the tiny flying quadrangles known as CubeSats.

CubeSats are tiny satellites with dimensions of 10×10×10 centimeters, weighing a little less than 3 pounds, and typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronic components.

Developed through joint efforts from the California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University, CubeSats are expected to offer a cost-effective way of supporting space weather and atmospheric research, the NSF said.

The GPS quandary

The GPS quandary : The Global Positioning System satellites aren't new but they certainly have gotten their share of bad publicity this year. Most recently the Air Force had to fix signaling problems with a new GPS satellite, rekindling the flames of a congressional report in May that said the current GPS satellite coverage may not be so ubiquitous in the future. According to that report the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals; it encountered significant technical problems that still threaten its delivery schedule.

The virtual satellite network

The virtual satellite network : The scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are developing an advanced space technology program that ultimately aims to replace traditional satellites with clusters of wirelessly interconnected modules. The program, called the Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange also known as the System F6, is intended to let the agency deploy individual pieces or what it calls "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each fractionated module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance and navigation, payload. Modules could replicate the functions of other modules as well. Such modules can be physically connected once in orbit or remain nearby to each other in a loose formation, or cluster, harnessed together through a wireless network they create a virtual satellite.

Satellite protection

Satellite protection : The Air Force laid out $29 million recently to build space-based sensors that could detect threats or hazards and protect satellites in orbit. Known as the Self-Awareness Space Situations Awareness, SASSA will develop and demonstrate a hardware/software architecture using a suite of threat warning instruments located on a satellite. This will be accomplished by developing and demonstrating a payload that can monitor a space vehicle using threat warning instruments and can report hazards or threat indicators to ground operators.

The asteroid hunter

The asteroid hunter : Canadian scientists are developing a 143 pound microsatellite they say will detect and track asteroids, comets as well as other satellites. The suitcase-sized Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) will twist and turn hundreds of times each day, orbiting from pole to pole every 50 minutes almost always in sunlight. The telescope has a sunshade that allows searching the sky to within 45 degrees of the Sun, a part of the sky difficult or impossible to observe from the ground, but where near-Earth asteroids are concentrated, researchers said.

NASA gets small

NASA gets small : NASA last year teamed with m2mi to develop very small satellites, called nanosats which weigh between 11 to 110 pounds, for the development of telecommunications and networking services in space. NASA says large groups of nanosatellites can be grouped in a constellation that will be placed in low Earth orbit to offer new telecommunications and networking systems and services. NASA and m2mi will develop what they call fifth generation telecommunications and networking systems for TCP/IP-based networks and related services.

The FAA's satellite system

The FAA's satellite system : The Federal Aviation Administration wants all aircraft flying in the nation's busiest airspace to have satellite-based avionics by 2020. Such systems would let air traffic controllers track aircraft by satellites using a satellite system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), which is 10 times more accurate than today's radar technology. That 10-fold increase in the accuracy of satellite signals will allow air traffic controllers to reduce separation standards between aircraft, significantly increasing the number of aircraft that can be safely managed in the nation's skies, the FAA said.

Space weather

Space weather: One of NASA's AIM satellite's goals is to study space weather phenomena. Last year it provided the first global-scale, full-season view of iridescent polar clouds that form 50 miles above Earth's surface known as "Night-Shining" clouds. Night Shining clouds form at a high altitude which lets them reflect sunlight long after the sun has set.

Also see:
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