Remote Systems

Most commercial satellites range in mass from 500 kg to 5 tons, with electric power of up to 18 kW. Development cycles are very long (10-15 years) and, because of the need to guarantee 15-year lifetime under harsh conditions with no possibility of repair, the technology used is generations behind what is found in current consumer electronics. Major advances in microelectronics, in particular microprocessors and MEMS, are making smaller (1-10 kg) satellites a viable alternative. These pico/nano-satellites provide cost-effective solutions to traditional problems and, especially when grouped into networks or constellations, they offer new possibilities to improve our safety, quality of life and understanding of our environment.  In this perspective, the space research within the Nano-Tera.CH initiative relates to the design, fabrication and launch of low-cost pico/nano-satellites and the development of the related space systems, which address the program overall objectives in the following ways:

  • Environmental monitoring by complementing measurements achieved by terrestrial systems. Indeed, by allowing 5-m-resolution multi-spectral imaging with 2-hour revisit frequency, constellations of pico-satellites provide an essential tool for observing and understanding the environment, e.g., deforestation, glacier retreat, and ozone concentration vs. altitude.
  • Local and worldwide disaster monitoring and support of emergency communications links, as a radio or optical communications relay.
  • Demonstration of novel micro-system technologies in space (i.e., removing risk associated with new technologies such as MEMS-based propulsion or MEMS-based star tracker), and zero-gravity scientific experiments, executed in miniaturized lab-on-chips on board single application-specific satellites. These are made possible thanks to the low weight and launch costs of the advocated pico/nano-satellites.

Pico/nano-satellites require high levels of integration and multi-functional components. Within the Nano-Tera.CH initiative, we will develop the key integration and miniaturization breakthroughs required to transition pico/nano-satellites from university demonstrators to commercially viable systems.  These breakthroughs are in the following areas:

  • Micro/nano-electronics: Micro/nano-technologies will provide the enabling devices and integration strategies to accomplish many of the essential tasks in such miniaturized aircrafts and their combination to form multi-functional elements. Major technological challenges have been identified in the areas of: (1) aggressive integration technologies of the various on-board sensors and devices (e.g., through 3-D integration); (2) novel materials combining several functionalities to enable a light, yet, strong satellite frame; (3) Reliability enhancement through judicious tailoring of material properties, hermetic packaging, testing techniques and design methodology, and the investigation of radiation hardening of highly sensitive circuits.
  • Sensors: For the purpose of earth observations missions, we foresee the development of the following crucial elements: (1) optical sensors for multi-spectral imaging and optical communication; (2) sensors optimized for harsh environments; (3) sensors for precise relative-position determination for precise formation flying; (4) sensors for satellite-health monitoring (e.g., temperature, vibration, strain and impact sensors).
  • MEMS/NEMS: These technologies will be instrumental for several satellite sub-systems, including: (1) MEMS-based sensors for harsh environment; (2) MEMS-based propulsion; (3) MEMS-based RF switches, filters, and oscillators that are key devices required to enable the required radio communications performance and re-configurability; (4) MOEMS arrays for adaptive optics to correct aberration inherent in low-mass unfoldable optics.
  • Systems and Software:  A major challenge for pico/nano-satellites is the high level of integration and the power limitations, and hence the strong interdependence of all sub-systems. When making design and packaging trade-offs for a given sub-system, the effect on all other sub-systems must be taken into account. Hence, the importance of system engineering. Furthermore, given the limited power and accessibility constraints, resources-aware, low-power and reliable software is key to the successful deployment of these space systems.
  • Information and Communication: With only a few Watts to communicate over several thousands of km, there is a major challenge to achieve the high data rates needed for earth observation missions. In addition to the careful choice and design of modulation schemes and coding techniques, we will investigate the following aspects: (1) on-board data pre-processing and compression, to extract only the relevant information to be transmitted to earth; (2) very low-power, yet, capable micro-processors and transceivers that are radiation tolerant; (3) wireless sensor network technology for satellite-health monitoring; (4) reconfigurable and smart antennas.

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