|First there was Sputnik, about the size of a basketball. Launched
by the Soviet Union in October 1957, it didn't do much except orbit every
90 minutes and broadcast its beeps, signaling its presence and telling
the world that the USSR was a military power to be reckoned with.
From that small start, spacecraft grew rapidly, reaching nearly 100 tons
with Skylab in 1973.
The International Space Station currently under construction will surpass Skylab by a factor of more than four. (Estimated total weight to be put in orbit is 460 tons.) But the size of spacecraft has also begun to move in the other direction.
Researchers and designers from NASA, the U.S. military, and aerospace firms are developing a new generation of "nanosatellites" that will incorporate microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), measure as small as four inches in diameter and one inch high, and weigh less than two pounds.
The photo above shows a chip (with a penny included for scale) tested recently in a space shuttle experiment that might someday be used in such a satellite. The chip, developed by the Aerospace Corporation, contains 19 microthrusters that could be used for orienting a nanosatellite. Tiny spacecraft of this type could be used for a variety of missions, including communications, studying solar activity, and monitoring precipitation on earth. Information about nanosats is not yet widely available, but a few useful references are listed below.
"NASA to Develop Intelligent, Cake-Sized Satellites," CNN Interactive (August 20, 1999)
"Microthrusters Power Nanosatellites," Space Daily (August 19, 1999)
Factsheet on Microsatellites, from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, June 1998 (Microsatellites are larger than nanosats; they weigh up to 100 kg.)
"AeroAstro Wins Air Force Contract To Study Tactical Nanosatellites," Space Daily (September 13, 1999) -- describes Air Force's "Bitsy" module
"Military Invests In Microelectronic Machine Technology," CMP's TechWeb, March 21, 1998
"Ionospheric Observation Nanosatellite Formation (ION-F)," an Air Force and DARPA-funded program at Utah State University, the University of Washington, and Virginia Tech
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