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FOCUS - From Cubes To Nanos To Picos… To Business!
by Lars Alminde, Managing Director, GomSpace

Over the last few years, driven by the cubesat idea, the industry has seen increasing global interest in pico- and nano-satellite research at universities. So far, the motivation for these activities has been mainly educational and often an exemplar of the “me too attitude” where the university initiates a project due to the interest from students — and let’s not forget the media attention such projects can attract!

In the future, these endeavors will become focused on more concrete mission objectives relating directly to science, technology demonstrations, and the evaluation of commercial applications. This focus will emerge out of necessity due to the requirements for the acquisition of project funding. The idea of building a cubesat with student participation is no longer a new concept. Funding will no longer be attracted unless the university presents concrete mission objectives in addition to the educational realizations of such projects. Recently, the ESA (European Space Agency) and the National Science Foundation in the U.S. have announced access to university cubesat launches, which combine educational objectives with sound mission ideas.

Guarantees of service must be provided to ensure funding for long duration missions. Pico-satellite (picosat) technology has not yet developed to the stage where such satellites are a viable selection for such commercial activities. Over the coming years, this will occur, and there will be some extremely interesting missions based on pico-satellite technology.

The winners will be those who launch truly innovative and reliable picosat missions. The unique qualities found within the commercial and educational sectors will be leveraged through ongoing networking, learning from one another. Incremental progress will be achieved through such collaboration to develop viable strategic roadmaps.

Universities have started to realize this fact. Not long ago, when our company approached universities about cooperation and inclusion of systems supplied by GomSpace in their missions, the attitude encountered was they wanted to do everything all by themselves.

This attitude seems to be changing. Universities recognize the value of building their satellite missions around proven technology. This allows the educational sector to maximize their efforts by truly adding value as well as unique aspects to their missions. If, for example, a university is building a new, miniature science instrument, why have the mission fail because a readily available power system from the commercial sector wasn’t obtained, and an internal, patched-together system designed in the last minute was used instead.

In the future, pico- and nano-satellites will provide a new business model for space missions. Today, larger satellites are the focus due to capacity issues (e.g. for imaging or communication needs) and are all that is offered to the marketplace as the solution. With picosat and nano-satellites (nanosats), the cost and lead time is low enough wherein a service could be tailored to a specific customer to meet a unique set of requirements, currently not being served by existing satellite-based communication and/or imaging solutions.

In 2009, GomSpace expects an increasing level of activity to support missions in development at universities. The company expects to announce commitments to a number of strategic development projects that will result in new products addressing some of the unique challenges faced by small spacecraft.

About the author
Lars Alminde is the Managing Director of GomSpace and he graduated from Aalborg University in 2004 with a specialty in intelligent autonomous systems. He subsequently studied for a Ph. D. at the same university within advanced model based methods for control and estimation. He is a systems engineer and an expert in model based control and estimation of complex electro-mechanical systems, with emphasis on attitude and orbit control systems for spacecraft.