September 10, 2013, 9:37 AM — Satellites the size of shoe boxes, which are expected to one day let researchers explore space more economically, will soon have a much longer reach.
MIT researchers have built and tested an inflatable antenna that can fold into such a satellite, then inflate in orbit to enable long range communications -- from seven times the distance possible today.
The technology will let the small satellites, called CubeSats, move further into space and send valuable information to scientists back on earth.
"With this antenna, you could transmit from the moon, and even farther than that," said Alessandra Babuscia, a researcher on the inflatable antenna team at MIT, in a statement. "This antenna is one of the cheapest and most economical solutions to the problem of communication. But all this research builds a set of options to allow the spacecraft ... to fly in deep space."
The MIT effort comes as engineers at the University of Michigan work on ways to propel such small spacecraft into interplanetary space. The team is building a plasma thruster that could fit in a 10-centimeter space and push a small satellite-bearing spacecraft into deep space.
The university researchers using superheated plasma that would push through a magnetic field to propel a CubeSat.
The MIT researchers are seeking to solve the communications problems and enable far-afield CubeSats to send data to and receive instructions from Earth.
The CubeSat devices cannot support radio dishes that are used today to let spacecraft communicate when far from Earth's orbit.
The inflatable antennas significantly amplifies radio signals, allowing a CubeSat to transmit data back to Earth at a higher rate, according to the university.
MIT engineers have built two prototype antennae, each a meter wide, out of Mylar, which is a polyester film known for its strength and use as an electric insulator. One antenna was a cone shape, while the other looks more like a cylinder when inflated. Each fits into a 10-cubic-centimeter space within a CubeSat.
Each prototype contains a few grams of benzoic acid, which can be converted to a gas to inflate the antenna, MIT noted.
In testing, the cylindrical antenna performed "slightly better" than the cone shaped device, transmitting data 10 times faster, and seven times farther than existing CubeSat antennae.
"A directional antenna has been out of the question for CubeSats," says Kar-Ming Cheung, a NASA engineer specializing in space communications but who was not involved in the inflatable antenna project. "An inflatable antenna would enable orders of magnitude improvement in data return. The idea is very promising."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.
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