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Satellites used to be the exclusive playthings of rich governments and wealthy corporations. But increasingly, as space becomes more democratized, these sophisticated technologies are coming within reach of ordinary people. Just like drones before them, miniature satellites are beginning to fundamentally transform our conceptions of who gets to do what up above our heads.
As a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences highlights, these satellites hold tremendous potential for making satellite-based science more accessible than ever before. However, as the cost of getting your own satellite in orbit plummets, the risks of irresponsible use grow.
The question here is no longer "Can we?" but "Should we?" What are the potential downsides of having a slice of space densely populated by equipment built by people not traditionally labeled as "professionals"? And what would the responsible and beneficial development and use of this technology actually look like?
Some of the answers may come from a nonprofit organization that has been building and launching amateur satellites for nearly 50 years.
The technology we're talking about
Having your own personal satellite launched into orbit might sound like an idea straight out of science fiction. But over the past few decades a unique class of satellites has been created that fits the bill: CubeSats.
The "Cube" here simply refers to the satellite's shape. The most common CubeSat (the so-called "1U" satellite) is a 10 cm (roughly 4 inches) cube, so small that a single CubeSat could easily be mistaken for a paperweight on your desk. These mini, modular satellites can fit in a launch vehicle's formerly "wasted space." Multiples can be deployed in combination for more complex missions than could be achieved by one CubeSat alone.
Within their compact bodies these minute satellites are able to house sensors and communications receivers/transmitters that enable operators to study the Earth from space, as well as space around the Earth.
They're primarily designed for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – an easily accessible region of space from around 200 to 800 miles above the Earth, where human-tended missions like the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station (ISS) hang out. But they can attain more distant orbits; NASA plans for most of its future Earth-escaping payloads (to the moon and Mars especially) to carry CubeSats.
Read more at phys.org