The 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite marked the beginning of the space age. Six decades later, the popularization of nanosatellites opens the door to the democratization of space and an industry with encouraging expectations, beyond countries and large multinationals.
Sputnik 1 was a sphere of about 80 kilos, but satellites were growing in size and for decades access to space was only within the reach of space agencies, some countries and large multinationals.
However, with the advancement of technology, they undertook the path of miniaturization and today they can weigh less than one kilo (pico satellites), although the most popular are nanosatellites, between one and ten kilograms.
The drastic reduction in size, cost and manufacturing times has made the satellite industry evolve for a long time towards what is known as “democratization of space”, since it allows access to new players, the CEO of the Spanish nanosatellites firm Alén Space, Guillermo Lamelas.
A key moment in this process was the creation in 1999 of the CubeSat standard, nanosatellites with standardized dimensions, 10x10x10 centimeters and a mass of up to 1.33 kilos, which can be assembled together to form more complex ones.
The CubeSat concept emerged in the university world from professors Jodi Puig-Suari (California State Polytechnic University) and Bob Twiggs (Stanford University), who wanted to create a simple way for students to make satellites.
What was born as an educational project is now a thriving reality, whose success lies in the fact that it is a standard platform for which there are a multitude of subsystems on the market, everything is qualified for use in space and its launch is very cheap, he says. the head of the space programs department of the Spanish National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), Eva Vega.
Thus, “many countries and private companies have been able to confirm – highlights Lamelas – that space is no longer an impossible dream. Now it is a reality, another place where you can do business or develop projects.
Alén Space specializes in CubeSats and, according to its manager, a company can have a nanosatellite for less than 500,000 euros and in less than a year, while a conventional one, which can weigh more than 500 kilos, costs from 100 to 300 million , with development periods between five and fifteen years.
These small mills have opened the door to the era of «New Space» (New Space), which supposes, Vega emphasizes, «the maturity of the space sector, which will cease to be a business promoted by governments to a competitive business».
In contrast to the traditional concept of space, which “has had a total aversion to risk, which has made it tremendously expensive and difficult to handle”, the New Space – he adds – is “agile, reactive, and admits risk.”
A new philosophy that has “supposed a revolution” and now it is enough, according to Lamelas, “to have the necessary motivation to transfer projects to space.”
The nanosatellites market has grown very rapidly and, despite the current situation of uncertainty, “some studies predict that the turnover will reach 4.8 billion dollars by the year 2025. The expectations are very encouraging,” he says.
Spain, Vega emphasizes, “has a thriving industry” in the New Space, “which, if well promoted, will mean great growth in the sector.”
The head of Alén Space agrees with this vision, as the country has companies throughout the value chain, from manufacturers, to launchers or component suppliers. “We are well placed and we think we have a very interesting opportunity to be a European power in this sector.”
Nanosatellites have multiple applications and, although their performance is not identical to that of larger devices, they are sufficient for many industrial applications.
Its uses are usually grouped in Earth observation, communications, geolocation and scientific and technological projects, with “infinite” applications, says Lamelas, from air traffic control, to logistics, meteorology, prevention and management of natural disasters or monitoring of crops.
But the profusion of satellites also raises problems such as space debris, in addition astronomers have pointed out that they make their observations difficult, as in the case of Elon Musk’s Starlink project, which plans to provide high-speed internet throughout the world, for which already has released hundreds.
The excess of satellites in orbit “is a problem that worries and is already facing the different governments and space agencies. We think – reflects Lamelas – that it would be positive to have legislation, but the responsibility of the operators in the face of this problem also comes into play”.
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