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Future of Astronomy with Small Satellites

The space sector is experiencing a paradigm shift due to the significant decrease in the cost of building and launching small satellites in space. These new platforms present exciting opportunities for astronomy and planetary science — research and development of new technologies, training of scientists, primary research and education and outreach — but also come with their own caveats. This Collection highlights the content of Nature Astronomy’s special issue on “The future of astronomy with small satellites”, including science motivations, technology developments and problems due to the proliferation of satellites in near-Earth space. In the “Further Reading” section, you will find additional pieces of commissioned content and primary research we have published in the past on this topic. Happy reading!

Views & Comments

Earth’s exosphere is set to become increasingly crowded, with tens of thousands of commercial telecommunication satellites planned in the next few years. We need to ensure that technological and socio-economic advancements will not imperil scientific progress and humanity’s access to dark skies.

Comment | | Nature Astronomy

The historic launch of the first several hundred out of 12,000 planned Starlink satellites heralds the arrival of the era of ultra-large satellite constellations. If it will bring new opportunities or insurmountable challenges to astronomy will probably depend on whether you are conducting your observations in space or from the surface of the Earth.

Comment | | Nature Astronomy

The Space Academic Network made a case for a small-satellite programme for the United Kingdom to provide access to space, and a route for advancing science and technology; however, funding has not been forthcoming. The search for a killer argument for this widely supported programme continues.

Comment | | Nature Astronomy

Philanthropic donations are a significant contribution to the betterment of humankind, with a large percentage dedicated to science and education. Affordable small satellites may offer philanthropists the opportunity to give students and underprivileged communities access to small space telescopes.

Comment | | Nature Astronomy

High-performance scientific satellites are currently the exclusive domain of government-funded agencies. The team behind the Twinkle Space Mission is developing a new class of small and sustainable science satellites that leverages recent innovations in the commercial space sector.

Comment | | Nature Astronomy

The Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment CubeSat mission aims to observe atmospheric escape from a dozen or more exoplanets by monitoring them in the near-ultraviolet, explains Principal Investigator Kevin France.

Mission Control | | Nature Astronomy

Perspectives

The number of small satellites has grown hugely in the past decade, from tens of satellites per year in the mid-2010s to a projection of tens of thousands in orbit by the mid-2020s. This presents both problems and opportunities for observational astronomy. Small satellites offer complementary cost-effective capabilities to both ground-based astronomy and larger space missions. Compared with ground-based astronomy, these advantages are not just in the accessibility of wavelength ranges where the Earth’s atmosphere is opaque, but also in stable, high-precision photometry, long-term monitoring and improved areal coverage. Astronomy has a long history of new observational parameter spaces leading to major discoveries. Here we discuss the potential for small satellites to explore new parameter spaces in astrophysics, drawing on examples from current and proposed missions, and spanning a wide range of science goals from binary stars, exoplanets and Solar System science to the early Universe and fundamental physics.

Perspective | | Nature Astronomy

Recently, nanosatellite capabilities, driven by commercial and scientific innovation, have led to the development of high-performance satellite payloads and subsystems. This article reflects on the history, current state and future of the field.

Perspective | | Nature Astronomy

Further reading

CubeSats, a standardized subgroup of small satellites, are a cheap and flexible solution to perform astronomical observations from space that is just starting to be exploited. This Perspective presents an overview of their advantages and of the current and planned projects.

Perspective | | Nature Astronomy

HaloSat, NASA’s first astrophysics-focused CubeSat mission — the size of a small briefcase — will survey the Milky Way’s halo in order to assess its complement of hot baryons, explains Principal Investigator Philip Kaaret.

Mission Control | | Nature Astronomy

PolarLight is the first dedicated soft X-ray polarimeter in space since the 1970s and is attempting to reopen this long-awaited window in astronomy, explain Principal Investigator Hua Feng and Ronaldo Bellazzini.

Mission Control | | Nature Astronomy

The MICROSCOPE experiment has set the best upper bound to date on the weak equivalence principle, proving Einstein’s postulate with an unprecedented precision, as explained by Principal Investigator Pierre Touboul and team members Manuel Rodrigues and Joel Bergé.

Mission Control | | Nature Astronomy