NANOSPACECRAFTS. An Illustrated Overview


Black Lives Matter

The dawn of a new era.
Nanospacecrafts are a game changer in the space exploration, surveillance, civil liberties and well beyond.

June 30th 2020 * theoverview team

Open source arrived to space with the CubeSats. Shrinking spacecrafts make possible space for everyone, change the way of learning by doing, offers a suitable platform for technology innovation, creates new tools for doing science and contribute to critical infrastructures for everyday life. Smaller, open source, satellites means low cost, reduced times for design and construction, testing more risky and disruptive options, faster test-and-error times, new functionalities (like constellations of spacecrafts than can be used even in deep space) and a faster knowledge-sharing.

This new trove of possibilities for space exploration also aggravate problems like space debris or challenges like cybersecurity of satellites that needs shared solutions at global scale. Plus, like other satellites, pose clear risks to privacy and civil liberties. Satellites can track our movements from space, allowing for surveillance on a mass scale; a challenge that can and must be adressed. Albeit the Earth observation from space also chronicles events worldwide – as seen in the satellite's images of the Black Lives Matter historic movement in the United States of America and worldwide –, and brings transparency for a better world. Satellite data is a critical tool for assessing and responding to geopolitical events. Space technologies and geospatial data can improve situational awareness and responding to health crises like the COVID-19 outbreak.

Not so long ago, the launch of satellites was only at reach for superpowers. At the end of Cold War in the nineties, intercontinental missiles found a new use launching satellites. The maiden launch of CubeSats (often qualified as “Bread-Loaf Size Satellites”), the first and most popular of the nanosatellites, used an old soviet missile (June 30, 2003). At same time, the growing miniaturisation of electronic components and the evolution of mobiles, created the low-cost and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products used to build the new nanosatellites. For years, the advances in rocketry (like reusability or the use of new materials, propellants and 3d printing) and the advances in satellites (like shrinking size and weight and growing functionalities) feedback mutually. Falling launch prices –accelerated by the use of reusable rockets and the existance of a growing number of smallsats launch companies– together with cheaper and powerful components for nanosatellites, makes possible the democratisation of access to space.

From a unique perspective

From the vantage point of space,
we see Earth from a unique perspective.

Orbit Earth makes possible planetary overview and solutions. And nanosatellites are changing the way we collect information in space; using a swarm of them can give simultaneous and more wide measurements. Significantly a very succesful use case of nanosatellites is Planet Labs, a truly Eye on the Sky with a constellation of plus of a hundred cubesats imaging all Earth in real-time permanently. Earth observation and monitoring allows to understand and evaluate the operation of our planet, and manage natural resources (water, soil, mineral reserves, vegetation, wildlife...), human activities (transport, agriculture, telecommunications...), and all kinds of disasters (the effects of extreme weather, famine, oil spills...). In current global climate emergency and environmental crisis, nanosatellites are pioneering new technologies more responsive, precise and cost-effective to measure greenhouse gases and all aspects related with climate and environment. Some of the most advanced technologies like quantum communications, blockchain, radiation tolerant computing, 3d printing... are being tested with nanosatellites. At the beginning, nanosatellites were used on education and technology, but now they are also doing science in space. The weightlessness also offers a unique environment for scientific research.

During years nanosatellites missions were limited to the low Earth orbit. The harsh conditions of deep space (distances, radiation, temperatures...) and the apparent frailty of the smallest spacecrafts were a frontier, until recently. The mission Mars Cube One (MarCO; evocative of the legendary explorer Marco Polo) demonstrated the feasibility of interplanetary exploration with nanosatellites by going beyond Mars (to hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth!). The spacecrafts ( twin, for redundancy purpouses; if one failed there is another) solved the potentials pitfalls in a brilliant and astounding way; the communications with a novel antenna and a miniature radio, and the propulsion with the simplest engine. This was a pathfinder and epic mission that expanded the opportunities for faster, innovative and low-cost projects for the exploration of the solar system by using nanosatellites. Currently a lot of mission to the Moon with nanosatellites are under preparation, from cubesats related to the Artemis and lunar Gateway projects to hundreds of 5 gram LunaSats built by students from all 193 countries of the United Nations! And this is only the beginning. The list of amazing of interplanetary nanosat-based missions is growing by the day. There are proposals of nanosatellites missions to Venus (nicknamed Cupid’s Arrow!), to the water plumes plumes of the Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus, or cubesats to the surface of Europa, the ocean moon of Jupiter... And also will participate in the first test of a planetary defense mission deflecting an asteroid. Just incredible!!!

... to the stars.

But nanosatellites point even beyond,
to the stars.

The boldest and achievable interstellar travel project underway is being designed with nanosatellites as the most appropriate space probes. Breakthrough Starshot project aims to send 1,000 StarChips – Spacecrafts-On-A-Chip – across four light years to Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, using photonic propulsion. The sails of the miniature spacecrafts will be accelerated to near relativistic speeds with the most powerful lasers. Moreover, the project could generate important supplementary benefits to solar system exploration, with interplanetary trips in record time, almost unimaginable right now, or organize flash missions to interstellar objects traversing our solar system, like the Oumuamua asteroid.

The coming next generation of nanosatellites will be truly fleets of nanoprobes, acting in unison, synchronously, in Earth orbit or in deep space missions. The technical building blocks of this fleets are being tested right now. In near future, multiple nanosatellites -swarm, flock or constellation-, with precision formation flying techniques, and connected in a mesh network, could perform equivalent tasks to our current individual giant spacecrafts or absolutely novel missions. Consider the paradigm shift that means to use a single satellite for observations to use tens or hundreds of them simultaneously.

an illustrated overview

An Illustrated Overview.

This is a nft-based document about this thrilling history. We will begin with the forerunners of nanosatellites, in a short time we will catch up, and finally will try to be like a record in near real-time of what's happening around the nanosatellites world. Every illustration, with the corresponding description, tells a story. Some about the spaceships, and when possible, others about the people who created them. In this times in which nanosatellites can make a difference; it well deserves our attention. "Space is a tool for transformation... Space represents the best of us," as stated astronaut Nicole Stott.

NanoSpacecrafts. An Illustrated Overview” is an initiative by theoverview project, a discovery journey into the new horizons of human species, trying to contribute an overview of our brave new world. theoverview is a cultural project in search of insights to understand and thrive in the times we live in, making sense of an uncertain world. The 10 years ahead of us can be defining of our civilization and our lifes. The 2020s is a make-or-break time. We live in a critical moment in human history. In this context, the evolution of our species towards a spacefaring civilization is our overview.

—The Journey:
NanoSpacecrafts. An Illustrated Overview

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In this document we use the term nanospacecraft to refer to the actual nanosatellites, nanoprobes or nanosats (with a mass of between 1 and 20 kilos) but also to the picosatellites (or picosat, between 0.1 and 1 kg) and to the femtosatellites (or femtosat, of a mass less than 100 grams). Although the word does not conform to the technical classification of small satellites, it is widely used in this way.