Thousands of microchip satellites could one day orbit the Earth and other planets, following an experiment on the upcoming space shuttle mission.
Scientists in the US are planning to test circuit-board technology mounted on the International Space Station exterior, as a first step towards creating a new generation of satellites that are essentially self-contained microchips.
Research teams from Cornell University in New York and Strathclyde University in the UK are working on the idea of ChipSats, which would measure less than 1cm in diameter and weigh several milligrams.
Proponents argue the technology would have low manufacturing costs, be easily integrated into larger systems and could move through space in a way that larger satellites couldn’t.
They could be used to study planets’ atmospheric conditions, monitor space weather or be dropped onto bodies with no atmosphere to collect data about the surface.
The Cornell team is preparing three printed circuit board devices to be included in the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) 8 project, due to be delivered by the penultimate mission of the space shuttle programme in April.
The devices, built with off-the-shelf components, will send basic signals back to Earth, testing their design and their survivability. The team’s next step would be to shrink the technology to microchip size by printing their own circuit boards.
One of the big attractions of ChipSats is their potential ability to re-enter the atmosphere without burning up, said Cornell’s Dr Mason Peck.
‘They have a very large area for their mass and tend to flutter to the ground so as they re-enter the atmosphere they should slow down quickly without much heating,’ he told The Engineer.
This means they could take measurements from the mesosphere, the part of the atmosphere below normal satellite orbits but too high for aircraft.
The limitations of such small devices would be overcome by deploying thousands of them simultaneously, said Strathclyde’s Prof Colin McInnes.
‘If you want to take measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field you could have a single spacecraft or you could have a swarm of sensor nodes measuring the magnetic field simultaneously at a thousand different points.’