The Smaller Explorer

Satellite image of earth

Smaller than a suitcase and floating around 500km above earth, micro satellites are an efficient new way to have an eye on the world. More dynamic than their deep-space counterparts, these ‘small explorers’ sit far closer to earth. But thanks to today’s advances in miniaturisation, they are just as advanced.

While far younger than traditional satellites, they’re already proving to be an area well worth investment and research. And a much more accessible one too.

For decades, the business of satellite research, development and launching was limited to government agencies and very specialist companies. This has changed significantly in the last few years, with brands like Canon and various universities around the world showing increasing interest in ‘shrinking’ the traditional satellite – packing power into small, light structures that can be launched cost-effectively into space. But what kind of benefits do these micro satellites bring besides costs, and what role is Canon playing in bringing them to life?

Disaster response

Nature is unpredictable, and natural disasters can have devastating consequences on the areas they affect. When crisis strikes, some countries have found huge success in deploying ‘constellations’ of small satellites to carry out swift assessment of the events as they happen.

In turn, that allows teams to implement response programmes in the right place and at the right level, while other vicinities can be evacuated. The data collected from each occurrence can also build a picture for analysis – helping in the prediction and response for future incidents.

Climate monitoring

By connecting them with on-ground sensors, low-earth orbit satellites can play a crucial role in keeping climate variations in check.

While covering a specific area, they can combine information coming from the sensors with images from their on-board camera – ultimately creating a complete data set that can be used to analyse the effects of climate change over a period of time.

More sophisticated satellites are already being developed and fitted to even gather CO2 emissions data.

Detailed mapping

Getting lost in a city will soon become a thing of the past thanks to commercially available, high-resolution images of earth attached to micro satellites.

Being increasingly accessible to commercial businesses, small satellites are already helping to provide accurate, scrollable and zoomable online maps. All you’ll need to use them is an internet connection.

Small satellites, big challenges

No matter their use or destination, we’ve been involved in building micro satellites for more than six years. This hasn’t always been an easy ride. Sending a micro satellite to a low-earth orbit is a big deal and most are launched into space via a rocket.

Canon Electronics Inc. sent its CE-SAT-I (Canon Electronics Satellite 1) into orbit in 2017 from a space centre in Southern India and this tiny satellite (just 500mm x 500mm x 850mm) has been returning images of the earth from a 500km orbit above the earth ever since.

Sitting inside its small chassis is a DSLR camera with a catadioptric optical system. This is a compact camera for wide-angle image capture, and other features. Its small body is powerful enough to identify individual cars on a road and capture wide-angle shots within a 740km x 560km frame.

The sky’s (not) the limit

According to Nobutada Sako, Group Executive, Satellite Systems Laboratory, Canon Electronics Inc, building the CE-SAT-I wasn’t a piece of cake either.

“We had real difficulties in three technical areas,” he says. “One was the absence of gravity; two was the vacuum environment; and three was the unrelenting radiation in space.”

The vacuum and radiation challenges were particularly difficult to overcome. Since there is no air in a vacuum, a fan will not create convection even if it turns. Therefore, any heat generated by a CPU or other unit cannot be dissipated and if it overheats, the system will shut down. The team counteracted this through a clever radiative cooling method that uses metal to conduct heat away from where it was generated.

As for radiation, the team was well aware of its risk to cause system stoppage or malfunction. In particular, radiation in the CPU can alter the data being written, causing an error. To prevent this, the development team tested a large number of semiconductor chips and eventually found one that was radiation resistant.

Years later, learnings from the construction and development of the first micro satellite are helping us to put together the next generation of smaller explorers. Work continues at the Canon Electronics lab in Japan to create even smaller and more powerful satellites.

The CE-SAT-III, for example, is already small enough to fit in your hand. Equipped with the most sophisticated imaging technology available, the future accuracy and efficacy in the areas mentioned above is vast.

But that’s just the start: in potential new markets, such as agriculture and commercial shipping, there is so much more to come.

Discover more about the CE-SAT-I on the Canon Global Website.