Washington, Nov 14 : Researchers from University of Florida (UF) aerospace engineering laboratory are building a small satellite, which may hold the key to a future of easy access to outer space - one where sending satellites into orbit is as routine and inexpensive as shipping goods around the world.
Known as the "pico satellite", it is the first ever built at UF and may be the first orbiting spacecraft to be built in Florida, according to Peggy Evanich, director of space research programs at UF.
"Right now, the way satellites are built, they're all large, one-of-a-kind and very expensive," said Norman Fitz-Coy, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the lead investigator on the project.
"Our idea is that you could mass produce these small satellites and launch 10 or 20 from a single launch vehicle," he added.
According to Fitz-Coy, present day satellites remain large, ranging in size from basketball to school bus proportions; expensive, with costs typically in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars; and slowly hand-built as one-of-a-kind devices, rather than speedily mass produced.
Scientists and engineers now hope to change that legacy.
"There is a national push to make satellites smaller so that you can provide cheaper and more frequent access to space," said Fitz-Coy.
As part of that push, the National Science Foundation this fall created the Advanced Space Technologies Research and Engineering Center at the UF College of Engineering.
Headed by Fitz-Coy, the center will seek to develop "pico- and nano-class small satellites" that can be built and launched for as little as 100,000 dollars to 500,000 dollars, according to the NSF.
Fitz-Coy said that small satellites are not anticipated to totally replace larger ones, but rather to complement them by adding new capabilities.
For example, he said, "swarms" of small satellites could take multiple, distributed measurements or observations of weather phenomena, or the Earth's magnetic fields, providing a more comprehensive assessment than is possible with a single satellite.
"People are looking toward these to not totally replace the big satellites but to supplement what the big satellites are doing," he said.
The UF satellite would be launched in 2009, likely aboard an unmanned NASA rocket carrying other payloads as well.
The satellite will fly at an altitude of between 600 and 650 kilometers, or from 373 to 404 miles, and will remain in orbit for several years, according to Fitz-Coy.