Nav: Home

How low can you go? New project to bring satellites nearer to Earth

March 03, 2017

The University of Manchester is leading a multi-million pound project to develop satellites which will orbit much closer to the Earth - making them smaller, cheaper, helping to dodge space debris and improving the quality of images they can send back.

Remote sensing satellites currently operate at about 500-800km above the Earth, above the residual atmosphere that exists at lower altitudes. But this means that observations of the ground must also take place over this range, either limiting resolution or requiring large telescopes to be used.

The €5.7m grant from the European Union's Horizon 2020 fund will allow the research team to design new technologies to build satellites that can operate at 200-450 km above the Earth's surface - lower than the International Space Station.

Dr Peter Roberts, Scientific Coordinator for the project, said: "Remote sensing satellites are widely used to obtain imagery for environmental and for security uses such as agricultural land management, maritime surveillance and disaster management."

"If we are able to get satellites closer to Earth then we can get the same data using smaller telescopes, or smaller and less powerful radar systems, all of which reduces the satellite mass and cost. But there are also many technical challenges which until now have been too great to overcome. This research tackles the problem on a number of fronts."

One issue is that the atmosphere is denser the nearer to Earth that satellites get. This means that drag needs to be minimised and countered. To do this, the team will develop advanced materials and test them in a new 'wind tunnel' which mimics the composition, density and speed of the atmosphere as seen by a satellite at these altitudes. This will allow the team to test how materials interact with individual atoms of oxygen and other elements in the atmosphere at speeds of up to 8km per second. The ultimate aim is to be able to use these materials to streamline the satellites.

They will also test the materials on a real satellite launched into these lower orbits. The satellite will also demonstrate how the atmospheric flow can be used to control the orientation of the satellite, much like an aircraft does at lower altitudes.

In addition, the team will develop experimental electric propulsion systems which use the residual atmosphere as propellant. This approach has the potential to keep the satellites in orbit indefinitely despite the drag acting upon them. However, it also means that the satellites will re-enter quickly when they've reached the end of their mission avoiding the space debris problems experienced at higher altitudes.

All these technological developments will be worked into new engineering and business models identifying what future very low Earth orbit remote sensing satellites would look like and how they would operate. The project will also map out the path for future exploitation of the developed concepts.

Partners in the research are The University of Manchester, Elecnor Deimos Satellite Systems, GomSpace AS, University of Stuttgart, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, University College London, The TechToybox, EuroConsult and concentris research management. The project is scheduled to run for 51 months from January 2017.

University of Manchester

Related Atmosphere Articles:

Physics: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere
Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.
Using lasers to visualize molecular mysteries in our atmosphere
Molecular interactions between gases and liquids underpin much of our lives, but difficulties in measuring gas-liquid collisions have so far prevented the fundamental exploration of these processes.
The atmosphere of a new ultra hot Jupiter is analyzed
The combination of observations made with the CARMENES spectrograph on the 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (Almería), and the HARPS-N spectrograph on the National Galileo Telescope (TNG) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma) has enabled a team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and from the University of La Laguna (ULL) to reveal new details about this extrasolar planet, which has a surface temperature of around 2000 K.
An exoplanet loses its atmosphere in the form of a tail
A new study, led by scientists from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), reveals that the giant exoplanet WASP-69b carries a comet-like tail made up of helium particles escaping from its gravitational field propelled by the ultraviolet radiation of its star.
Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet
Exoplanets can orbit close to their host star. When the host star is much hotter than our sun, then the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star.
Astronomers find exoplanet atmosphere free of clouds
Scientists have detected an exoplanet atmosphere that is free of clouds, marking a pivotal breakthrough in the quest for greater understanding of the planets beyond our solar system.
Helium detected in exoplanet atmosphere for the first time
Astronomers have detected helium in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits a star far beyond our solar system for the very first time.
Mountain erosion may add CO2 to the atmosphere
Scientists have long known that steep mountain ranges can draw carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere -- as erosion exposes new rock, it also starts a chemical reaction between minerals on hill slopes and CO2 in the air, 'weathering' the rock and using CO2 to produce carbonate minerals like calcite.
The changing chemistry of the Amazonian atmosphere
Researchers have been debating whether nitrogen oxides (NOx) can affect levels of OH radicals in a pristine atmosphere but quantifying that relationship has been difficult.
Hubble observes exoplanet atmosphere in more detail than ever before
An international team of scientists has used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the atmosphere of the hot exoplanet WASP-39b.
More Atmosphere News and Atmosphere Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.