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100,000 satellites above our heads: the new race that makes access to space everyday


Highlights: Small satellites allow a space economy in which not only powers or large companies can participate. Until 2013, Vicente Díaz and Miguel Ángel Vázquez worked making photovoltaic solar panels to produce electricity on Earth. The entry of Chinese companies left them out on the streets and posed a dilemma. “There were colleagues who switched to gas and oil, but coming from renewables it was not what I most wanted,” says Dísaz. The Small Satellites and Services International Forum (SSSIF) was held in Malaga this week.

The revolution of small satellites allows a space economy in which not only powers or large companies can participate.

The first space race began as a war and propaganda competition.

When the Americans heard the signal from Sputnik in 1957, they knew that the Russian missiles had their cities within range.

In 1969, they must have been relieved when Werner von Braun, the Nazi who created the first combat missiles, allowed them to win the race to the Moon with powerful Saturn rockets.

The technological benefits of that confrontation are numerous and ubiquitous in the lives of people who are lost without satellite guidance, but that initial push dissipated with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Three decades later, with the resuscitation of history that some then considered over, a new space race has begun in which the great powers once again measure their prestige and their weapons.

But this new race will have more participants, small companies or students and professors who make relevant contributions from almost anywhere in the world.

Until 2013, Vicente Díaz and Miguel Ángel Vázquez worked making photovoltaic solar panels to produce electricity on Earth.

The entry of Chinese companies left them out on the streets and posed a dilemma.

“There were colleagues who switched to gas and oil, but coming from renewables it was not what I most wanted,” says Díaz sitting at a table in a hotel in Malaga.

In those years, the new space was being born, a metamorphosis of the aerospace industry arising from technological changes that allowed the construction of smaller and cheaper satellites, which could be launched on affordable rockets and made it possible to participate in the renewed space race from the Costa del Sol. , thousands of kilometers from Houston, Moscow or Beijing.

Díaz and Vázquez founded DHV Technology, a company that manufactures solar panels to generate energy in space that already power more than 260 satellites.

They are also the organizers of the Small Satellites and Services International Forum (SSSIF), which this week brought together many protagonists of this new phase of the space race in Malaga.

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“When I started, if you wanted to work on this, you had to go to the United States, but now it can be done almost anywhere,” says Jordi Puig-Suari, one of the fathers of Cubesats, a type of small and cheap satellites. that define this new era of access to the most democratic space.

“Before, being a

rocket scientist

[space engineer] was something that was intimidating, large companies and large investments were needed to launch a satellite.

Now, satellites can be built with commercial elements, which do not have to last so many years and allow even students to develop and launch their satellites,” explains the professor at Cal Poly University in the United States.

Juan Tomás Hernani, CEO of Satlantis, specialized in Earth observation technology with small satellites for border surveillance or climate change mitigation, did the math on this new world.

Traditional satellites are larger and require technology that will be in force for the decades necessary to recover a huge investment.

Now we should not be obsessed with having such a durable technology, it is worth the one that produces the necessary results for a few years, enough to recover the investment before the technology becomes obsolete or the satellite stops working.

At that time it can be replaced by another that incorporates new technology.

An Earth observation satellite like PAZ, from the Spanish Ministry of Defense, weighs 1,400 kilos and costs 160 million euros.

Small satellites weigh around 100 kilos and cost less than a tenth of that.

Puig-Suari highlights the value of these satellites for defense functions.

“Before, you could have a very expensive satellite that could be disabled by an attack.

Now, there are constellations of small satellites that perform the same functions and are more difficult to defeat,” he explains.

Some will not replace the others, but they will complement them and allow more companies to do business in the space.

Fernando Aguado, professor at the University of Vigo and creator of the first Spanish satellite developed with the CubeSat standard, mentions other space applications, "that improve our daily lives in a lot of ways that sometimes people are not aware of."

The possibility of continuously taking images of the Earth has made it possible to improve the microcredit system with which farmers finance themselves in countries like Kenya or India.

By being able to analyze the type of exploitation of a given farmer, it is possible to more easily and accurately evaluate the risk of a loan and speed up its granting.

Aguado also highlights the possibility that this new space offers students like his, “from a public and not very large university,” to be able to develop satellites and put them into orbit.

The inspiration that the epic of reaching the Moon previously offered now comes from the possibility of being a protagonist in space exploration, even in more humble projects.

The Earth's orbit, where small satellites proliferate like those that Startical intends to launch to improve air traffic control and allow planes to travel closer together and more efficiently, is the scope of the new space, but in Malaga it was seen that the epic Exploring the frontier continues to be a basic incentive for space engineering.

Several representatives from NASA and the European Space Agency explained their plans to return to the Moon and set up colonies and, from there, prepare the assault on Mars.

In this effort, state support continues to be almost everything, although the states later contract their services to private companies such as Elon Musk's Space X.

“We focus on the difficult things, on taking astronauts there, building a base or making a space station, and private industry can sell us services such as logistics or communications,” explains Carlos García Galán, from NASA.

An example, which was also discussed in Malaga, is ROXY, a project led by Airbus to produce oxygen from lunar regolith, an essential step to live on our satellite.

All this can make returning to the Moon cheaper and faster, this time to stay, although there are aspects that are more complicated than six decades ago.

“Now,” says Galán, “we could not tolerate deaths as happened in the Apollo program, that is why we have taken more time to finish the Artemis II and III systems” in which humans will return to the Moon.

Andrés Martínez is one of those in charge of exploiting the potential of small satellites for space exploration for NASA.

One of the projects he has led is Biosentinel, a satellite the size of a shoebox in which samples of brewer's yeast (

Saccharomyces cerevisiae

) are launched into deep space to study the effects of radiation on living beings and learn about the risks of traveling to the Moon or Mars.

In Malaga he jokes about the good luck that the Astrobotic company's first launch had failed in its first attempt to reach the Moon.

The mission is part of the CLPS program, with which NASA wants to make returning to the Moon cheaper by hiring private companies to prepare the return to the Moon.

“The next one will take our very expensive rover,” says Martínez, referring to VIPER, a robot that will search for ice and other useful resources at the south pole of the Moon.


, which landed on the moon on Thursday, is the first CLPS program mission to successfully reach the satellite.

The lunar base, in which NASA or the European Space Agency will learn to live outside of Earth, will begin to be built in the 2030s. What will be learned in that decade will allow us to say if the dream of reaching Mars is really feasible. .

García Galán recognizes that they no longer take it for granted, because unknowns are abundant in space.

When the first humans return to the Moon, they will begin testing systems to work without support from Earth;

Communications will have a delay of 20 minutes, so astronauts who go to Mars will be alone in emergencies.

And they must learn to face problems that are not very epic, but very important, such as the nuisance of negatively charged lunar dust that mercilessly sticks everywhere.

Meanwhile, small and large satellites will continue to transform the world.

There are now more than 8,000 in orbit, but it is expected that by the end of the decade there will be more than 100,000.

On Earth, the international political situation can slow down space development in which private initiative increasingly weighs, but the opposite can also happen.

The years in which space technology developed most rapidly were also those in which humanity came closest to destroying itself.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2024-02-24

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