Emerging Space Technologies: Micro-to-Macro

The current rapid growth in commercial downstream satellite applications is a result of long-term investments in upstream technologies for satellite platforms across sectors such as telecommunications, Earth observation and navigation.

In order to continue this growth into the future, and to enable unsuspected new satellite applications, novel space technologies will be required at extremes of spacecraft length-scale. For example, MEMs-scale sensors offer the prospect of swarms of satellite-on-a-chip devices for massively parallel real-time sensing. Similarly, in-orbit 3D printing technology offers exciting new possibilities to fabricate ultra-large gossamer structures to deliver large apertures for enhanced power and communications.

Our Approach

Though a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies we are investigating new concepts for space technologies, satellite platforms and mission design from micro-to-macro length-scales. By pushing the boundaries of length-scale to these extremes, it is anticipated that unsuspected new concepts will emerge which can underpin the new downstream satellite applications of the future. Our work is delivering a mix of modelling and simulation, laboratory-scale bread-boarding and ultimately in-orbit demonstration as appropriate. For example, our PCB-satellite programme is developing a 3x3 cm device with 3-axis attitude control, while our work on in-orbit fabrication is investigating direct printing of structural materials onto membranes in vacuum.

Why is this research important?

  • Micro-scale: We envisage a new class of space system delivering real-time, high spatial resolution measurements of the space environment using massively parallel sensing with clouds of networked sensor nodes. Services could include space weather monitoring through MEMs-scale magnetometers embedded in each node, or support for large platforms through visual inspection and fault detection.
  • Meso-scale: Future platforms can be configured using 2D arrays of unfolding planar modules, each hosting computing, power and communications. By reconfiguring the geometry of such arrays, adaptable platforms can be envisaged which can be reconfigured to deliver a range of mission applications, while their time-varying inertia matrix enables new and novel attitude control strategies.  
  • Macro-scale: By directly printing structures onto thin film reflective membranes, ultra-large gossamer reflectors can be fabricated in-orbit. We envisage new energy services with sunlight reflected onto large terrestrial solar PV farms at dawn/dusk when spot prices are high. Other applications include thermal power for in-orbit manufacturing, potentially to process near Earth asteroid resources.


Professor Colin McInnes