Can tiny satellites help the Coast Guard do its job?

A miniature satellite, known as a cube satellite or CubeSat, which is usually 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters in size. The Coast Guard is exploring the possibility of using these satellites to help with some of its missions. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
A miniature satellite, known as a cube satellite or CubeSat, which is usually 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters in size. The Coast Guard is exploring the possibility of using these satellites to help with some of its missions. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Satellites, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, are driving a new Space Age, researchers say, and the U.S. Coast Guard wants in.

In 2018, two so-called cube satellites will be launched into low Earth orbit from a SpaceX rocket, part of a project to test whether the satellites can detect emergency distress beacons in the Arctic. The mission, dubbed "Polar Scout," is also a way for the Coast Guard to look at potential uses for these satellites in its day-to-day work.

Tracking sea ice, a treacherous task that is mainly carried out with Coast Guard aircraft, is one possibility for these satellites, which could save the cost of operating an aircraft and put air crews at less risk.

The technology is not being considered as a way to replace but to augment the Coast Guard's traditional ways of doing business, with the goal of reducing costs and risk to personnel, said Lt. Cmdr. Sam Nassar of the service's Research & Development Center in New London, one of several government agencies involved with the Polar Scout mission.

But the primary goal of the launch is to see whether these small satellites can augment the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's system of larger satellites that collect search-and-rescue beacons from the Arctic. NOAA's system is nearing the end of its service life.

"A new system is coming online, and with this mission we're going to find out if these smaller satellites could augment or assist in that transition," Nassar said. "If one of the main satellites comes offline, can we launch a small satellite as an interim solution until a larger, traditional satellite comes up?"

The project is garnering a lot of attention, according to Nassar, because of increased maritime activity in the Arctic due to melting sea ice and the need for reliable distress communications.

At their smallest, cube satellites are 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters and weigh less than three pounds. Once in space, the satellites can support a wide variety of hardware and sensors: solar panels for power, radios for communication, telescopes and small computers to process information and control the flight of the spacecraft.

Nonprofits and educational organizations can apply to NASA to launch their small satellites, a concept known as ride share launches. Companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab have created businesses launching these smaller satellites, for which you pay in a way similar to purchasing an airline ticket.

The satellites first were developed in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and Stanford University's Space Systems Development Lab as a way to make space research more accessible to university students.

Two seniors at the Coast Guard Academy are researching a simpler, cheaper solution to orient cube satellites — or make sure the satellites are pointing in the right direction rather than tumbling in space. Their professor, Lt. Stephen Hills, said the goal is not to create something that can be used on a Coast Guard satellite someday but to expose the service's future officers to space systems and challenges to space research.

There's also a project in the works at the academy, involving the research and development center, to build a cube satellite ground control station on the roof of one of the buildings on campus. That station would enable researchers and cadets to download information from cube satellites in space.

j.bergman@theday.com

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