Spacy Conversations

Stuff you hear in the train can be quite interesting. Last week I was taking the train home from Delft. The train was quite crowded, but I managed to find a place to sit. During the stop in The Hague, two men sat down beside me. They started a heated debate on Dutch Space technology and the role our government should play in it.

The topic was “Nano Satellites”. A fairly new sector of research which could apparently use a bit of funding. I’d never heard of those, so a great opportunity to do some research.

One would immediately assume this would concern amoeba-sized equipment. But Nano-satellites are described as weighing several kilos, so apparently, we’re dealing with a different definition here. The nano bit relates to the size of ordinary satellites, and the cost. So a nano satellite is merely a small one, weighing a few tens kilos compared to the ten tons of the Hubble Space Telescope. With launch costs of around sixty thousand dollars per kilo, nano satellites are becoming increasingly attractive. One day they may even contain some nanotechnology, but that’s another story.

Nano satellite technology is currently mostly being developed by students, in their free time. This makes it quite difficult to secure funding for large scale research. Decision makers view nano satellites as hobby projects.

A great example of nano satellite development is the XI-V (picture © ESA). One of its mission objectives is the acquisition of Earth images by a commercial off-the-shelf digital camera and the operation of a message transmission service using an amateur radio frequency.

Apparently, the Netherlands has a lot of knowledge on this subject, but isn’t really able to transform this knowledge into projects. There aren’t many manufacturers in the country, and exporting the know-how to other EU-member states that do have manufacturing capabilities might kill Dutch space research altogether. Let’s hope that won’t happen.