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February 25, 2013

World's Smallest Space Telescopes to Hit Orbit Today

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer


With all the developments going on out at Mobile World Congress (News - Alert) today, it's easy to forget that there are other places with other technology events happening. One of these involves two new tiny satellites that will be in orbit before the end of the day, specifically, the two smallest space telescopes ever, sent on a mission to study the brightest stars in the sky.

The Bright Target Explorer (BRITE) satellites, developed by Canada's University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, were loaded into an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle at 7:20 this morning, Eastern time. They were then sent up from the Satish Dhawan Space Center located in Sriharikota, India. The BRITE satellites will be pointed outward toward bright stars that commonly adorn the night sky, like those found in the constellation Orion.

Once trained on their target, they can monitor stars to note changes in brightness over time, which can find things like spots on the stars themselves, any planets that may be in orbit around said stars, or what are known as "starquakes," caused by oscillations within the stars themselves.

The BRITE satellites measure just eight inches wide and weigh just over 15 pounds, but despite their small stature, will demonstrate that nanosatellites are now able to do many of the things formerly thought to be strictly for full-sized satellites only. There are, however, limitations associated with the tiny satellites, specifically in terms of resolution. So while nanosatellites like the BRITE series have some impressive potential, for now they also have some substantial limitations as well.

This isn't the first time that tiny satellites have gone into space. Japan's FITSAT-1 went into space back in October, a tiny three pound satellite that continually fires bursts of Morse code from a series of LEDs targeting the Earth. Their overall value is substantial, especially in terms of development projects.

While larger satellites are tougher to get into orbit, requiring more fuel and development costs--not to mention the costs related to actually building the large-scale devices themselves--smaller satellites, naturally, cost less. Getting them into orbit can be done with much less expense. Additionally, there's the advantage of pushing development in the small satellite field in general. Consider how far tablets and smartphones have gone over just the last 10 years; with comparable development put into small satellites, we may well be able to replace large-scale satellite projects with their much smaller brethren in rapid fashion, saving money, improving efficiency, and making space programs overall much more viable.

Only time will tell what impact small satellites ultimately have on the aerospace industry, but the future is looking surprisingly bright for them.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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