MIT Researchers Design Laser-Pointing Platform for Launching Miniature Satellites

Thanks to efforts of a pair of engineers from MIT, mini-satellites can send back data in higher amounts and at a faster rate.
Mario L. Major

As innovations in the space sciences continue to evolve at an astronomical rate (with any and all possible puns intended), engineers are using their know-how to examine ways to enhance the efficiency of various operating systems and hardware.

From satellites designed purely for the aims of collecting space junk accumulated from past missions to developing the technology behind autonomous deep-space navigation governments and agencies are investing their talents and resources into beefing up unmanned space mission capabilities from a number of angles.

Now a team of engineers from MIT has come up with a platform that makes the process of launching mini satellites not only easier but also assists with more accurate data transmission.

Their work involves CubeSats, or U-class spacecraft, with NASA ramping up launch efforts in recent years. 

The Pros and Cons of CubeSats

Though CubeSats, tiny satellites given the name based on the shape created by the 10×10×10 cubic centimeter dimensions, have been consistently been launched into outer space for the past twenty years, the fragile units present some challenges.

MIT Researchers Design Laser-Pointing Platform for Launching Miniature Satellites
A CubeSat                     Source: NASA

Although they are a much more affordable alternative to their larger counterparts, their relatively small dimensions create a limitation in terms of (1) the speed and (2) the amounts of transmission due to its onboard resource capacity.  

Despite these inherent limitations, they can be sent into space in larger amounts and more frequently than larger satellites, but the evolution of image technology has also added to the data transmission issue.

MIT Researchers Design Laser-Pointing Platform for Launching Miniature Satellites
Source: MIT

Kerri Cahoy, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and paper co-author, explains their unique challenge: "Small satellites can’t use these bands, because it requires clearing a lot of regulatory hurdles, and allocation typically goes to big players like huge geostationary satellites."

A New Era for CubeSats

Cahoy believes this innovation will open up new possibilities for the mini-satellites:

"To obtain valuable insights from Earth observations, hyperspectral images, which take images at many wavelengths and create terabytes of data, and which are really hard for CubeSats to get down, can be used.

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But with a high-data-rate lasercom system, you’d be able to send these detailed images down quickly. And I think this capability will make the whole CubeSat approach, using a lot of satellites in orbit so you can get global and real-time coverage, more of a reality."


Because the new platform utilizes a laser-pointing system which is highly precise, the downlink time and energy would be greatly reduced.

The team also designed the platform which can be easily modified, Cahoy explains:

"This shows that you can fit a low-power system that can make these narrow beams on this tiny platform that is a factor of 10 to 100 smaller than anything that’s ever been built to do something like this before.

The only thing that would be more exciting than the lab result is to see this done from orbit. This really motivates building these systems and getting them up there."

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "On-orbit beam pointing calibration for nanosatellite laser communications", which was published in November in the Optical Engineering journal. 

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