Ever since Russians put a tiny ‘Sputnik’ satellite in space in 1957, every country that has its own space exploration programme, has been vying with each other to send heavier and heavier payloads (in most cases, satellites) in the space. This quest for sending heavier and heavier satellites up is understandable. Heavier satellites can accommodate larger payloads, more complex scientific instrumentation, better cameras and more powerful radio transmitters on board.
Canadians, it appears, want to reverse this trend and send new satellites that can be called Nano, when compared with even the first or ‘Sputnik’ satellite. ‘Sputnik’ was a 585 mm or 23 inch diameter sphere and weighed 83.4 Kg or 184 pounds. The new Canadian satellites called ‘BRIght Target Explorer (BRITE)’ are cubes with 20 cm (7.8 inches) long sides and weigh less than 7 Kg.
These 2 BRITE satellites would start their journey is space from Shriharikota in India, on board of the giant Indian work-horse rocket PSLV on 25th February 2013 if all goes as per schedule. PSLV-C20 rocket would be carrying 4 more smaller satellites and 2 larger ones including Indo-French joint venture satellite, SARAL. C20 is the 23rd mission of the indigenous PSLV rocket and has been configured in a ‘core-alone’ or bare-bones format without solid strap-on motors.
The BRITE satellites have been designed at the ‘Space Flight Laboratory of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies’ and would orbit Earth every 100 minutes or so and measure the brightness of stars to learn more about their volatile inner workings. They are no bigger than a lunch box or a big suitcase, but are real high-tech satellites. These satellites will try to spot asteroids, track other satellites and space debris, and peer deep into stars.
Each of these nano satellites is a smallest astronomical satellite ever built. It contains a telescope about 20 centimetres long, along with the technology needed to help point it at its targets: the stars that are most visible from Earth. Solar cells on the outside can generate the 10 watts of power needed to run the devices as they orbit Earth every 100 minutes or so and measure the brightness of those stars to learn more about their inner workings. The BRITE satellites have been in production since 2005, and are part of a complex international scientific relationship that sees most of the funding for this portion of the project come from Austrian sources, while much of the technological expertise comes from Canada. In space terms, where an International Space Station can cost $150 billion, the BRITEs are relatively cheap, clocking in at between $1 milllion and $2 million for each nano-satellite.
Canadians, who do not have any space launch facilities of their own, find availability and launch cost of Indian rockets extremely attractive and want to use them. Cordell Grant, satellite systems manager at the Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies says
“I think we’re showing that you can do really exciting things in space without the big budgets that people tend to associate with space programs.” He has personally seen the integration of the nano satellites with the giant C20 rocket and would be waiting nervously as the launch goes through. Canadians are expecting much from this launch. Cordell adds “There’s a lot of interest in the space community in general in what can be done with smaller satellites because as economic times are tighter, then people tend to look at space programs that are spending a lot of money and say how can we avoid spending that money but do useful things. SFL has demonstrated that nano-satellites can be developed quickly, by a small team and at a cost that is within reach of many universities, small companies and other organizations. ”
So far, such nano satellites were used only to monitor the earth. This is the first time when such small satellites are launched intended for astronomy and two satellites would be working for the common objective.
What about the future? SFL, Canada would be launching 4 more such satellites within a year and have big expectations. Cordell sees the BRITE project having the potential to open up a new market for “low-cost, high-performance satellites.”