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A new type of technology of satellites is making space missions more affordable and accessible than they have ever been. The CubeSat is so small that you can hold it in your hands, a box that weighs just 1 kilogram, and can be piggybacked on someone else’s rocket. It is modular form and can be stacked up to form bigger units.
It is in a standardised format that uses cheap, off-the-shelf electronics, and it is cheap enough for universities or companies to develop. But it is capable of carrying out very serious science and radically opening up the opportunities for space research. ‘Cubesats,’ says one of the founders of the concept, Professor Bob Twiggs of Morehead State University in Kentucky, ‘could do for space what the Apple II did for computing 30 years ago: spark an economic and technological revolution by placing a well-known but formerly inaccessible technology in the hands of just about everyone.’
We’ve become used to thinking of satellites as big and heavy, although Sputnik 1 was just over 80 kilograms. But the development of more powerful rockets led to satellites becoming larger and more complex, and today they typically weigh several tons.
But there has also been a pattern of using smaller ‘microsatellites’ – from 10 to 100 kilograms. They were used for some kinds of atmospheric research, and also for amateur radio links. And in the 1980s the technology really began to take off, as electronics devices became ever smaller and sophisticated.
In the late 1990s, Bob Twiggs, then at Stanford University, along with Professor Jordi Puig-Suari of California State University, realized that standardization was needed, in the same way that the open-source movement had developed in software creation. In the year 2000 they published the specifications for a CubeSat.
It would be a cube with a 10 centimetre side (about 4 inches) and thus a volume of 1 litre (a couple of pints). Cubes could also be joined, to make for instance a 2U CubeSat (two boxes) or a three-box 3U CubeSat.
It’s built out of a metal frame, within which is fitted the various components – the electronics, the instruments, communications systems, power units (often now produced by the Scottish company Clyde Space in Glasgow).
‘CubeSats also often have solar panels on several sides and an antenna protruding from one end; some may soon have rudimentary navigation systems, with tiny nozzles that can stabilize the craft’s attitude and orient it in a desired direction,’ says Twiggs in a recent Scientific American article co-written with Dr Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a research fellow at Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK.
A dramatic changeBob Twiggs and Alex Pang sum up the radical new shift in technology that’s opening up:
‘For decades each generation of satellites has been more complicated and expensive than its predecessor, taken longer to design, and required an infrastructure of expensive launch facilities, global monitoring stations, mission specialists and research centres,’ they say.‘In recent years, however, improvements in electronics, solar power and other technologies have made it possible to shrink satellites dramatically. A new type of satellite, called CubeSat, drastically simplifies and standardizes the design of small spacecraft and brings costs down to less than $100,000 to develop, launch and operate a single satellite – a tiny fraction of the typical mission budget of NASA or the European Space Agency.’
Already the new technology is starting to take off, as innovative people realize its potential.‘Aerospace engineers and astrophysicists have been joined by professors and students from other departments, and entrepreneurs have started companies offering launch services and support. Countries without much of a space program, have been able to start one. Switzerland and Colombia have already launched their countries’ first CubeSats, and several others – including Estonia – are working on their own. CubeSats even make it possible for individual U.S. states to start their own space programs. Most notably, Kentucky has formed a consortium of academic and nonprofit institutions to build a CubeSat industry.’
Kentucky Space, which reached space with its Frontier-1 CubeSat in March 2010, has a strong educational aspect. All its missions are student-led and student-designed, with professional support coming from mentors in industry and academia. It recently completed KySat-1, entirely designed, built and tested by university students. The aim of the satellite was educational outreach, to transmit signals and pictures that could be detected on the ground by standard amateur radio equipment – and to enable children to send up commands to the satellite to take photographs.
It was due to fly piggyback with NASA’s Glory mission, which was developed to look at the Earth’s energy balance, but a problem with the Taurus rocket meant that the launch failed. However, several more Kentucky satellites are scheduled for launching through the rest of 2011.The low cost of CubeSats means that if something goes wrong, you can pick yourself up and try again. ‘It lets you fail and it lets you innovate. That’s a key to entrepreneurship,’ says the president and founder of Kentucky Science and Development Corporation, Kris W. Kimel.
It also means that you can try out ideas without having to take years to mobilize funding. QuakeSat, launched in 2003, measured very subtle changes in the earth’s magnetic field to see if these could be used to predict earthquakes. LightSail-1 is testing the world’s first solar-wind sail, to investigate a possible new means of propulsion. CloudSat studies the build-up of vertical cloud structure over a period of days.Companies have been coming forward to provide orbital facilities for Cubesat builders. The Houston-based company NanoRoacks installed a CubeSat holder on the International Space Station and now leases out space. Various companies have taken up the opportunity, and so have educational institutions – including one high school.
‘The idea that CubeSats could be the PCs of space science – cheap, flexible, commoditized and standardized – suggests a final and potentially even more revolutionary role: enabling an amateur presence in space,’ says Twiggs and Pang. ‘This may come sooner rather than later: space start-up Interorbital Systems in Mojave, Calif., plans to offer CubeSat kits and low-Earth-orbit launch for less than $10,000.’
For many hundreds of year, raw materials have been the key to economic success – coal or iron or oil. If a region has the appropriate materials, or a suitable port for shipping them, development will follow. First come the materials, and then the people.
But now in the 21st century this argument is being stood on its head. What comes first, argues the American thinker Richard Florida, is people. The talent of a single individual can create a company anywhere in the world – an Apple or a Google or an Amazon. And these people can choose where to live and develop their business. So, says Florida, if a region wants economic development, it has to find a way to make itself attractive to them.
And how does it do that? They look for, he says, three essential things – three T’s. Talent, Technology and Tolerance.
The first T is for Talent – creative and innovative people need other people of a similar disposition around them, to bounce ideas off, to share a buzz with, to provide the skills to support projects when they take off.
Similarly, creative and innovative people need the best Technology for their tasks – resources such as fast broadband. If a region has the right technology in place, it will draw in the people who use it.
And the third T may at first unusual – T for Tolerance. By this, he means a place where people can relax and not feel under pressure – a pleasant environment, pleasant socially and culturally. This covers a whole range of aspects – parks and gardens, riversides and beaches, cafes and art galleries.
A radical shift
The third T shows the extent to which conventional thinking is being turned upside down. Traditionally, the aim was to go direct for the industrial development and build advance factories and industrial estates, and to let the resultant growth in prosperity build the cinemas and theatres. Richard Florida argues that the amenities come at the outset.
An example from the US is the story of a small software company called Approva, started up in Houston where its founder lived at the time. He chose to relocate it to the Tyson’s Corner section of Washington DC, a part of the city renowned for its vibrant cultural life. It worked: he was able to attract a number of graduates from Yale and Harvard, who came because they wanted to move to Washington. That would not have been the case had the company stayed ‘amid the strip malls and fast food restaurants that dominate the Houston landscape’.
A second example from America is that of Seattle, clearly immensely strong in the first two T’s, Talent and Technology. But it’s not taking its strengths for granted, and is investing heavily on the third T and working on its environment. Under what it calls ‘restorative development’, the city has drawn up neighbourhood plans, with pavement and street improvements, building and refurbishing community centres, improving parks and libraries.
In other words – economic development is often seen as finding acorns and helping them grow. Richard Florida is saying: first prepare the ground for them – and the garden round about.Challenges – and opportunities
And what about Moray? For the third T, there are some real pluses, particularly in the natural environment. It’s only an hour from the Cairngorms – although Aviemore is obviously better placed for the mountains – but villages like Aberlour and Dufftown are near the hills. The proximity to the sea is a strength, particularly for communities along the coast, from Cullen and Buckie to Lossiemouth and Findhorn. There are woods and forests, and parks and gardens to the fore in towns such as Forres.
On the other hand, amenities are patchier, and it would be interesting to see a survey of what young people think of them. This is particularly important since when we move to the first T, Talent, we find a big problem – a heavy out-migration of young people. Indeed, the strength of the first T, Tolerance and the pleasant natural environment, is bringing in older people to retire, while the educational system is taking a large proportion of talented young people to cities elsewhere in the UK and job opportunities there which are much beyond any they would have in their home territory.
That creates a dangerous feedback loop. Lack of young people in Moray leads to lack of a buzz and lack of development of amenities for young people, and that further discourages young people from making their future here. That applies to local young people coming back, or to young people from elsewhere – or to businesses, as in the story of the American software company, who need to attract highly talented young people for specialist posts.
So the first T, for Talent, is hit by a damping mechanism that if not tackled will hold back any major development in the so-called ‘sunrise’ industries. To break the damping cycle, something has got to be done to create a buzz – not simply to rebrand the area, although that’s part of it, but something to start off the creative interaction between talented people that happens every coffee-break across hundreds of cafes in Seattle.
In Seattle, physical location is what matters. An innovative thinker can look round a coffee-bar and see a dozen others who like to spark ideas. So somehow a way has to be found to build up an aggregate of innovative people in Moray who can exchange ideas – in other words, to provide a channel of communication to draw them in, whichever part of the region they happen to live in. hence the present initiative.
It’s important to understand that the only people who can really recognise innovators tend to be other innovators. This is simply because innovators, by definition, are people who think differently. They can sometimes be entrepreneurs – but not necessarily so. An innovative person may not necessarily want to run their own business. It is true that often they have to do so, simply because they cannot find anyone else who can understand their insights and so they have to implement these themselves. But we have to be careful about trying to channel innovators down the route marked ‘enterprise’ and ‘growth’. In fact, we have to be careful about trying to channel innovators in any direction. Richard Florida’s thinking is about recognising them as a resource of the same potential as coal or iron or oil, and treating them with a similar respect – and seeking to create a climate that encourages them to flow in to a region like oil from a well.
This also makes clearer the role of the public sector. By definition, the public sector should not be too innovative. If it is local authority, its role is to deliver the service which the public expects, in a way which they accept. If it is an enterprise company, its role is to invest in a sound business proposal – not to try to assess innovation. Richard Florida’s ideas ghave a particular focus for a stage that precedes decisions about investment in any particular business project – they are about creating a climate in which innovation flourishes, and from which innovation can then evolve in particular instances into enterprise.
And that leads in turn to the second T, Technology. If a region wants the people, it has to provide the technology – but what technology? Fast broadband is clearly one universal provision that can immediately be recognised by everyone. But there are also specialist areas of technology. And it is here that Moray’s two RAF bases have a unique value. RAF Lossiemouth with its fast jet operation has been identified as an ideal base for the new type of space operations that are emerging, with rocketplanes rather than multi-stage ballistic missile systems. The company that have spoken highly of Lossiemouth, Virgin Galactic, are likely to concentrate their own developments for the next few years at New Mexico in the US and in Kiruna in Sweden, after strong initiatives from both areas to secure their operations, with New Mexico having to build the complete package of runways and landing systems for Spaceport America from scratch. But at Lossiemouth and Kinlosss a wealth of facilities are already there, and the UK – a world leader in small satellites – needs a launch facility for a new generation of small polar orbiting satellites.
So the challenge for Moray is to highlight its resources to the world, so that the various innovators and entrepreneurs out there who are drawing up ideas for new rockets and satellite launch systems know about its facilities, and so that the UK government can be encouraged to move forward with encouraging satellite launch facilities.
And what other technologies might there be in Moray? And what other talented people might be out there, at school or in employment or on the move and looking for somewhere with the right type of tolerant environment? This platform has been created to open up the discussion.
proposed by Bill Graham
Is Moray missing the boat?
Six or so years ago the Chinese noticed the WPC developments in north America and took action. They are now starting to export WPC products into Europe possibly including the U.K.
The Chinese are exploiting WPC See - http://www.perthwpc.com
There maybe one U.K. manufacturer of WPC components:
Vannplastic See - http://www.ecodek.co.uk
Here is a real opportunity for Scotland, and for Moray in particular. If no Scottish companies or entrepreneurs are picking up this opportunity, would it not be possible to invite a Chinese company, such as PerthWPC to set up a European factory in Moray?
It makes a lot of sense.
Why ship all the way from China or the USA?
This is a low-risk, sustainable business.
We have the markets, the raw materials and more than adequate talent.
Do we have the foresight?
10th November 2010