Soon we will have a real flying saucer over our heads

Tomorrow’s satellites may look like flying saucers. NASA is working on a disk-shaped satellite that will be tested soon. Light, strong and efficient, they can be important for earth observation.

Satellites in orbit around the earth may be technological gems, but they are not attractive. The appearance of a large insect with a dense or cylindrical body and large wings symbolized by solar panels. But NASA is currently working on a slightly different design: discsats.

These disk-shaped devices are being developed by Aerospace Corporation, which hopes to send them into orbit by 2024. The U.S. space agency has since funded the company to launch a technology demonstrator But why would you want to send a flying saucer into space? ” In space, everything is a matter of compromiseNumerama, an engineer with the French space agency Sines, confessed to Eric Busari. It is necessary to reduce the mass while carrying energy to supply the instrument, and to increase the energy, any initiative is welcomed. A

What a DiskSat looks like. // Source: Aerospace Corp.

This is the basic idea behind the development of these disksets: providing more power with less heavy structure, easier to stack in launchers so that large launches can be done. According to Aerospace Corp, a DiskSat will be one meter in diameter, 2.5 centimeters thick and 8 kg capable of delivering about 100 watts. For comparison, it would take 30 kg of cubsat to provide the same amount of power.

An empty orbit to occupy

The company plans to launch two pairs of disksat by 2024, the first about 250 km above sea level and the second 200 km below. Relatively low orbit, most other satellites are at least 500 kilometers high. However, it turns out that the design of the disksets is practical for flying a little lower. Their shape makes them less sensitive to wind, they rub less and therefore require less trajectory correction, which means energy savings. According to Richard Well, inventor of Space News disksat: This is a completely new orbital regime that is not contaminated by other satellites. A

It is true that the number of satellites is higher than the risk of explosions, especially collisions with constellations like Starlink. It would be convenient to look for satellites capable of flying low, even if there is always the risk associated with space debris, which in itself changes its orbit in an uncontrolled way. And precisely, when it comes to debris, the manufacturers of the product ensure that without altitude control, the satellites will fall to Earth quickly and therefore the chances of collisions will be less after the mission is over.

That said, what can these satellites be used for? Well, according to Eric Busari, interest may be limited: ” The problem with these designs is that they limit the type of devices you can keep. It should be flat antenna only, no optical instrument … Inevitably, if the devices cannot be installed in the “pack” of the satellite, they will expand and become much less practical for launching the disksat.

Applications for these disksets are still limited

But NASA has some ideas for applications with this technology. For example, it could be a constellation of satellites dedicated to communication, including all vehicles that are usually stronger and lighter than satellites dedicated to this type of orbital network.

If satellites could get close enough to Earth, it would be really effective for accurate observation, Eric can recognize Busari. But you have to remember that it will not be in the optics and when you are close, your field of vision will be much narrower. Here is a compromise! A

A design that has potential, but can limit what is possible

But before they get there, Aerospace Corp and NASA hope to pass the first test, which will be aimed at testing the maneuverability of the machine. The company assures that it will be possible to easily change the orbit of a satellite, which is usually a very power-intensive operation.

Discsat may therefore be useful for certain missions, for example Earth radar observations that may be precise, or secondly, constellations of more powerful and less heavy satellites. But for Eric Busari, we are still not on the brink of a revolution in the sector: ” In this market, everything depends on standardization. We have standard instruments that must be incorporated into the architecture of the car. It’s interesting to imagine new ideas and that’s what start-ups do. But in Cnes, we have the whole problem in mind and there are many consequences of such a change. A

Within a few years, Disksat will certainly be able to coexist with Cubsat and other smaller nanosats, but for each of these technologies, the problem remains the same: you always have to find the right balance between mass, power, and instrumentation. Currently, Aerospace Corp. Working with the launchers to figure out how to adapt the design and see if customers will be interested in these flying saucers.

Look at the world from space

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