Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Inflatable antennae could give CubeSats greater reach

09.09.2013
Design inflates with a powder that turns into gas.

The future of satellite technology is getting small — about the size of a shoebox, to be exact. These so-called “CubeSats,” and other small satellites, are making space exploration cheaper and more accessible: The minuscule probes can be launched into orbit at a fraction of the weight and cost of traditional satellites.


View of a CubeSat equipped with an inflated antenna, in a NASA radiation chamber. Photo: Alessandra Babuscia

But with such small packages come big limitations — namely, a satellite’s communication range. Large, far-ranging radio dishes are impossible to store in a CubeSat’s tight quarters. Instead, the satellites are equipped with smaller, less powerful antennae, restricting them to orbits below those of most geosynchronous satellites.

Now researchers at MIT have come up with a design that may significantly increase the communication range of small satellites, enabling them to travel much farther in the solar system: The team has built and tested an inflatable antenna that can fold into a compact space and inflate when in orbit.

The antenna significantly amplifies a radio signal, allowing a CubeSat to transmit data back to Earth at a higher rate. The distance that can be covered by a satellite outfitted with an inflatable antenna is seven times farther than that of existing CubeSat communications.

“With this antenna you could transmit from the moon, and even farther than that,” says Alessandra Babuscia, who led the research as a postdoc at MIT. “This antenna is one of the cheapest and most economical solutions to the problem of communications.”

The team, led by Babuscia, is part of Professor Sara Seager's research group and also includes graduate students Benjamin Corbin, Mary Knapp, and Mark Van de Loo from MIT, and Rebecca Jensen-Clem from the California Institute of Technology. The researchers, from MIT’s departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics and of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, have detailed their results in the journal Acta Astronautica.

‘Magic’ powder

An inflatable antenna is not a new idea. In fact, previous experiments in space have successfully tested such designs, though mostly for large satellites: To inflate these bulkier antennae, engineers install a system of pressure valves to fill them with air once in space — heavy, cumbersome equipment that would not fit within a CubeSat’s limited real estate.

Babuscia raises another concern: As small satellites are often launched as secondary payloads aboard rockets containing other scientific missions, a satellite loaded with pressure valves may backfire, with explosive consequences, jeopardizing everything on board. This is all the more reason, she says, to find a new inflation mechanism.

The team landed on a lighter, safer solution, based on sublimating powder, a chemical compound that transforms from a solid powder to a gas when exposed to low pressure.

“It’s almost like magic,” Babuscia explains. “Once you are in space, the difference in pressure triggers a chemical reaction that makes the powder sublimate from the solid state to the gas state, and that inflates the antenna.”

Testing an inflating idea

Babuscia and her colleagues built two prototype antennae, each a meter wide, out of Mylar; one resembled a cone and the other a cylinder when inflated. They determined an optimal folding configuration for each design, and packed each antenna into a 10-cubic-centimeter space within a CubeSat, along with a few grams of benzoic acid, a type of sublimating powder. The team tested each antenna’s inflation in a vacuum chamber at MIT, lowering the pressure to just above that experienced in space. In response, the powder converted to a gas, inflating both antennae to the desired shape.

The group also tested each antenna’s electromagnetic properties — an indication of how well an antenna can transmit data. In radiation simulations of both the conical and cylindrical designs, the researchers observed that the cylindrical antenna performed slightly better, transmitting data 10 times faster, and seven times farther, than existing CubeSat antennae.

An antenna made of thin Mylar, while potentially powerful, can be vulnerable to passing detritus in space. Micrometeroids, for example, can puncture a balloon, causing leaks and affecting an antenna’s performance. But Babuscia says the use of sublimating powder can circumvent the problems caused by micrometeroid impacts. She explains that a sublimating powder will only create as much gas as needed to fully inflate an antenna, leaving residual powder to sublimate later, to compensate for any later leaks or punctures.

The group tested this theory in a coarse simulation, modeling the inflatable antenna’s behavior with different frequency of impacts to assess how much of an antenna’s surface may be punctured and how much air may leak out without compromising its performance. The researchers found that with the right sublimating powder, the lifetime of a CubeSat’s inflatable antenna may be a few years, even if it is riddled with small holes.

Babuscia says future tests may involve creating tiny holes in a prototype and inflating it in a vacuum chamber to see how much powder would be required to keep the antenna inflated. She is now continuing to refine the antenna design at JPL.

“In the end, what’s going to make the success of CubeSat communications will be a lot of different ideas, and the ability of engineers to find the right solution for each mission,” Babuscia says. “So inflatable antennae could be for a spacecraft going by itself to an asteroid. For another problem, you’d need another solution. But all this research builds a set of options to allow these spacecraft, made directly by universities, to fly in deep space.”

Written by: Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

Sarah McDonnell | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.mit.edu

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Magnetic fields provide a new way to communicate wirelessly
01.09.2015 | University of California - San Diego

nachricht 'Magic' sphere for information transfer
24.08.2015 | Lomonosov Moscow State University

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Hubble survey unlocks clues to star birth in neighboring galaxy

In a survey of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope images of 2,753 young, blue star clusters in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy (M31), astronomers have found that M31 and our own galaxy have a similar percentage of newborn stars based on mass.

By nailing down what percentage of stars have a particular mass within a cluster, or the Initial Mass Function (IMF), scientists can better interpret the light...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer ISE Develops Highly Compact Inverter for Uninterruptible Power Supplies

Silicon Carbide Components Enable Efficiency of 98.7 percent

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE have developed a highly compact and efficient inverter for use in uninterruptible power...

Im Focus: How wind sculpted Earth's largest dust deposit

China's Loess Plateau was formed by wind alternately depositing dust or removing dust over the last 2.6 million years, according to a new report from University of Arizona geoscientists. The study is the first to explain how the steep-fronted plateau formed.

China's Loess Plateau was formed by wind alternately depositing dust or removing dust over the last 2.6 million years, according to a new report from...

Im Focus: An engineered surface unsticks sticky water droplets

The leaves of the lotus flower, and other natural surfaces that repel water and dirt, have been the model for many types of engineered liquid-repelling surfaces. As slippery as these surfaces are, however, tiny water droplets still stick to them. Now, Penn State researchers have developed nano/micro-textured, highly slippery surfaces able to outperform these naturally inspired coatings, particularly when the water is a vapor or tiny droplets.

Enhancing the mobility of liquid droplets on rough surfaces could improve condensation heat transfer for power-plant heat exchangers, create more efficient...

Im Focus: Increasingly severe disturbances weaken world's temperate forests

Longer, more severe, and hotter droughts and a myriad of other threats, including diseases and more extensive and severe wildfires, are threatening to transform some of the world's temperate forests, a new study published in Science has found. Without informed management, some forests could convert to shrublands or grasslands within the coming decades.

"While we have been trying to manage for resilience of 20th century conditions, we realize now that we must prepare for transformations and attempt to ease...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Together - Work - Experience

03.09.2015 | Event News

Networking conference in Heidelberg for outstanding mathematicians and computer scientists

20.08.2015 | Event News

Scientists meet in Münster for the world’s largest Chitin und Chitosan Conference

20.08.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Ion implanted, co-annealed, screen-printed 21% efficient n-PERT solar cells with a bifaciality >97%

04.09.2015 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Casting of SiSiC: new perspectives for chemical and plant engineering

04.09.2015 | Machine Engineering

Extremely thin ceramic components made possible by extrusion

04.09.2015 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>