The Small and Speedy New Computer to Power “Flying Laptop”

On Monday, the Institute of Space Systems (IRS) of the University of Stuttgart, in Germany, unveiled the onboard computer for its first mini-satellite: the “Flying Laptop.” Its developers say it's among the “quickest” satellite computers in its category, and both European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Center have expressed interest in it. The Flying Laptop will be yet another example of a trend toward simpler, cheaper satellites.

The three-camera satellite will capture images to track shipping movements, vegetation measurements as well as other scientific observations. It’s expected to launch in early 2014.

The computer is constructed using radiation-resistant microchips to make it durable and allow it to remain in orbit for a long period. But one of the unusual things about this computer is that it doesn’t only function as that; its battery is also made to be the main power supply on board satellites of up to 130 kg.

The system was developed mainly by amateurs. Since its inception ten years ago, the University’s small (less than 130 kilograms) satellite project has been carried out mainly by PhD and some undergraduate students.

But the students of the IRS team aren’t the only ones striving to design cheaper-to-build and smaller satellites. Aerospace engineers of the Air Force Research Laboratory have developed a “plug-and-play” satellite, designed to be cheap and ready to go after a quick assembly. And Canadian firm Com Dev is hoping to enable global quantum cryptography using cheap microsatellites.

The Flying Laptop project was funded mainly by the German state of Baden-Württemberg and the University itself as well as by satellite maker Asturium and German Aerospace Center.

Illustration: University of Stuttgart

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