More than 150 experts from 77 aerospace companies and research institutes have gathered in Chia Laguna, Sardinia, to discuss the use of small, low-cost satellites, which made headlines earlier this month when ESA’s SMART-1 completed its mission with a dive onto the Moon's surface.
The seventh Small Satellite Systems and Services Symposium (4S Symposium), being held from 25 to 29 September, is organised every two years by the French Space Agency (CNES) and ESA, since 2004, and focuses on the use and prospects of small satellites such as SMART-1 and Proba, the small Earth Observation satellite.
“Both SMART-1 and Proba have proven that small satellites can be used both to test new technologies at low cost and to conduct space missions that provide a significant scientific return,” said Luca Maresi, ESA System Engineer and co-organiser of the symposium.
The recent successes of the small missions signal that the sector has come to maturity in recent years. SMART-1 was the first European mission to the Moon, which it studied for 16 months before successfully completing its mission on 3 September 2006, gathering data about the morphology and mineralogical composition of the surface in visible, infrared and X-ray light. Weighing only 367 kg, the small satellite produced excellent results using a series of miniaturised instruments for observations of the Moon.
“SMART-1 demonstrated to both experts of the sector and the public at large that thermionic propulsion is a well-established reality,” Maresi said. “This allows us to undertake more demanding missions with confidence, like the BepiColombo, a probe designed to study Mercury that is scheduled for launch in 2013."
Proba, ESA's smallest Earth Observation satellite at just 94 kg, was launched in 2001 and continues to make big contributions to science with applications ranging from environmental monitoring, agriculture, forest, land use, crop forecasting, marine and coastal science as well as biological soil crusts and solid waste landfill monitoring.
Proba is essential for verifying the proper operation of the independent processing aboard the satellite - a characteristic that allows the satellite to operate in an autonomous manner. Small satellites are therefore able to complement traditional space activities in both the commercial sector and for research purposes.
During the 4S Symposium, the seventh to be held, the space community will be called upon to confirm the successes it has achieved and to propose challenges for the immediate future. Attendees will also discuss to what extent small satellites lower the risks of missions of greater undertaking and to what extent small satellites can be used in the solar system exploration programme.
Other topics to be addressed include whether industrial components used in small satellites will be easy to find on the market and whether it will be possible to stimulate industrial production in the market that will be able to survive without the support of research institutes, which until now has been necessary.
The development of low-cost satellites looks set to take on a great importance, with European companies having embraced the sector to the point that they are now able to offer a catalogue of products used for building the satellites. “Several graduate students have also taken part in the building of small satellites, which in this way took on educational value as well," Maresi explained. “They can also be a way for involving the best minds in the space sector."
ESA, CNES and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are representing Europe at the 4S Symposium, while NASA (National Aeronautic and Space Administration), JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the American Air Force and Navy research laboratories, including the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) and the Navy Research Lab (NRL), are representing the United States. Representatives of Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Morocco and South Africa are also expected to attend.