A touch of glass for nanosatellites

Glass nanosatellites could cut the high-costs and lengthy production times normally associated with the spacecraft, claim researchers.

A team at the Aerospace Corporation in California have built a demonstrator — 100 times smaller than conventional satellites — measuring 4in in diameter and half an inch thick. It could lead to satellites that can be mass-produced and mass-customised for particular missions.

William Hansen, senior researcher in AC’s nanotechnology department, said that efficient satellite production would make it possible to launch a huge number of satellites to cover a large area.

‘We feel that you could have thousands of these in space at once, and even though their mission time may be short it would be easy to launch a thousand more,’ he said.

According to Hansen, the organisation’s current thinking is that the satellites could be placed in space in a co-ordinated array, where hundreds of them could be linked up and used as a giant antenna, with each satellite working in unison.

Alternative research is investigating the use of the tiny devices as a co-orbiting satellite assistant that would be launched from the mother satellite or shuttle, to carry out surveillance for any damage or anomalies using an onboard camera. Once the devices have served their function they are designed for controlled de-orbit.

Lee Steffeney, left, and Bill Hansen hold segments of the demonstrator glass-ceremic satellite developed at Aerospace for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in December 2004.

By building the satellites of glass, sections such as the fuel tank can be integrated into the main structure, therefore reducing weight. The transparency of the material also means photonic systems can be used for intra-satellite communications, which would reduce the space constraints and problems associated with cabling and wiring. Glass in the form of a glass ceramic composite is also as tough as nickel and is not brittle; it can be bent, moulded and strengthened in particular areas — which cannot be done with stainless steel or aluminium, the team claims.

As AC is a research-only facility, Hansen said the team is hoping to secure funding from the commercial sector to take the concept further, and have already received a number of approaches.