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Space exploration has infatuated generations for decades now. What started as a race to master human achievement between superpowers has evolved into a human endeavor concerned with the future of humanity. For what is essentially the entire history of human space exploration, the process has necessitated one thing: money.
The economics of space
When the shuttle program was in full force between running launches between 1981 and 2011, the average cost of sending one pound of material into space ran about $10,000 by conservative estimates, according to Business Insider. Ever since, the space race has largely turned private, and with this shift, competition is driving that cost per pound down.
Elon Musk claims that the Falcon Heavy will be able to take 1 pound of cargo into space for as little as $1000. While that has yet to be seen, this ultimately is a 10 times reduction in cost from just a decade ago.
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This not only means that the cost of launching humans into orbit is getting cheaper, but so too is the cost of getting technology into space, like satellites. SpaceX currently charges about $62 Million to launch a satellite into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) in 2018. ULA, the main competitor to SpaceX, reportedly charges around $225 million per launch on average with the cheapest coming in at around $100 million.
The argument for microsats
All this for giant satellites that provide GPS, television, communication technologies – all this to provide the world with the modern tech that makes it go round. This high cost has relegated the industry to basically only large companies, but a question arises. What if you took that large single cargo and split it into tens or hundreds of smaller satellites? Wouldn't the cost per satellite launch come down, making space more accessible to, if not the average human, a high-achieving one?
Yes, it would.
Enter the microsat industry. Commonly referred to as microsats or CubeSats, these tiny little devices can fit in the palm of your hand. Don’t judge tiny satellites by their size though, they are packed with temperature sensors, communications technologies, chemical sensors, you name it, and it can be packed into a space the size of 10x10x10 centimeter cube or less.
The one tradeoff for building satellites this small is generally each one has to have a specific purpose, say detecting hydrogen levels, studying geolocation data, or making other observations. For the most part, these small satellites can only detect and transmit a few things, but according to NASA, that’s not a problem.
The current state of microsats
Microsats have nudged their way into a gaping hole in the space research fields, and they've been around for some time now too. There are currently 2200 CubeSats and NanoSats in orbit around the earth, all of them tracked and compiled on this website here. A quick glance will demonstrate the breadth of uses for these tiny satellites, from earth imaging to radiation monitoring.
While most of the current microsats launched right now are in orbit around Earth, NASA has many proposals on the table for CubeSat missions to Mars, asteroids, and the moon.
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A typical CubeSat is going to have a small onboard computer, a power management system, a solar cell, a gas propulsion system, a communications system, and sensors. The specific layout and additions to each of these systems vary by their intended use. Ultimately, shrinking electronics have made the world of CubeSats possible. This shrinking technology also means less weight to transport to space, therefore cheaper launch costs for space exploration.
As costs get cheaper and the barriers to entry shrink, we're seeing a massive academic adoption of MicroSat space exploration. Universities across the world have and are planning to launch MicroSats to facilitate research across a variety of industries, with some big names involved. Some of them, former astronauts and space leaders themselves, like Astronaut Byron Lichtenberg.
As a two-time shuttle astronaut, he became the first payload specialist to fly on the shuttle in 1983. As a founder of many space-oriented companies, like the Zero Gravity Corporation, which takes willing participants on parabolic "zero-g" flights for a rather low cost, his interests haven't strayed far from space. He's also a mechanical engineering professor at LeTourneau University, where he's leading a group of senior engineers as they work to send their own MicroSat into space.
The project, titled LetSat, was forged with the intention of being one of the first groups to fly a functional GPU in low-earth orbit.
While you may think that GPUs, or graphics processing units, are just for gaming, you'd be wrong. These computational components are similar to CPUs but differ in the fact that they allow multiple processes to occur at once. Think of it this way: a CPU, while powerful, can only manage a few things at once. GPUs, on the other hand, can handle thousands of things at once, increasing computational speed and otherwise improving functionality.
Traditionally, GPUs have stayed out of the microsat and space industry because they take a lot of power. However, the LetSat team has developed architecture that will allow a GPU to be operated inside a microsat in space, allowing for artificial intelligence orbiting Earth.
By opening the door to GPU usage in space on a platform as affordable as a microsat, the research that can occur can be exponentially increased within the industry compared to traditional computing platforms.
While demonstrating that a GPU can run in space is one of LetSat's main goals, in order to demonstrate this they had to give their equipment a purpose. For this mission, they'll be focusing on processing imagery from an onboard camera to accurately predict the exact location of their satellite in Earth's orbit. While this may not sound like much, refining this capability would provide satellites an accurate way to navigate Earth's orbit in places where GPS isn't available.
The LetSat team is currently hoping to launch in the early 2020s and are awaiting grants to make that happen.
This project is cutting edge, and it's being done by senior engineering students – perhaps the most accessible space research has ever been.
As for your grand desire of going to space or conducting space research? You can wait to take a space tourism flight in the next several decades at grandiose costs (link space tourism video - launch Dec 3), or you could get involved with a microsat project and push the bounds of human space research. Your call.
A huge thank you to the LetSat team and LeTourneau University for talking with me about the project and letting me film. You can learn more about the LetSat project or LeTourneau University at the links in the description or right here.