Our satellite network is frozen in the 1970s, a shortcoming that affects things like aeroplane communication and our struggle to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Satellites provide infrastructure for everything from TV to navigation to military communications. Yet last month, a satellite was launched into space that can hold the data equivalent of just seven iPhones, wrote Ashton.
But there’s hope. Ashton writes:
We need new satellite technology. And it’s arriving. Wealthy private investors and brilliant young engineers are dragging satellites into the 21st century with inventions including “flocks” of “nanosatellites” that weigh as little as three pounds.
These nanosatellites are just one category of “small satellites,” those under 1,100 pounds. The nanosatellite category ranges from 2.2 to 22 pounds, compared to the 2.5-ton behemoth launched last month.
While there are likely still some applications that will require a full-size satellite, these smaller ones are taking on many roles — and doing the job of older satellites cheaper.
“What we are seeing are smaller satellites that have similar capabilities to much larger, traditional satellites,” Glenn Lightsey, the director of Texas Spacecraft Lab, told The New York Times in 2013.
Because these new satellites are smaller, it costs much less to get them into orbit, he said.
Small satellites are used for a variety of applications, by everyone from astronomers to the military. For spying purposes, they “offer greater flexibility and control, and can dramatically reduce the costs of simple overflight and reconnaissance tasks,” technology journal New Atlantis said as early as 2003.
Some have championed their potential in areas of disaster and agricultural monitoring, as well as resource exploration, especially in developing countries.
But the most exciting applications could be with nongovernmental users, according to the Hodoyoshi project, a Japanese space-development program.
Their low cost and quick development “make these satellites very attractive and cost-effective materials for space education, especially for countries which have just started space development programs,” according to the Hodoyoshi project.
These futuristic-sounding microsatellites are already orbiting above us. One startup, Planet Labs, has launched a few. It calls its nanosatellites “doves,” and in January it launched the Flock 1, which consists of 28 nanosatellites that are imaging the Earth right now.
It is “the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites,” according to Planet Labs. “With this constellation, Planet Labs will provide images of the entire Earth for a variety of applications, from agriculture to mapping to environmental and humanitarian.”
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