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How Small Satellites Are Providing Low-Cost Access to Space

Commercial interests and educational institutions among those launching the tiny payloads

4 min read
An engineer at the Jet Propolsion Lab uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one of the Mars Cube One spacecraft .
An engineer at the Jet Propolsion Lab uses sunlight to test the solar arrays on one of the Mars Cube One spacecraft .
Photo: JPL-Caltech/NASA

THE INSTITUTE Miniature satellites are driving a new wave of innovation in space systems and are generating excitement similar to that of the earliest days of space exploration. The global small satellite market is expected to grow to more than US $7.5 billion by 2022, according to Market Watch.

The tiny satellites are taking on increasingly complex missions. In May the Jet Propulsion Lab–Caltech Mars Cube One mission sent two CubeSats to fly alongside NASA’s InSight lander on its way to Mars. The pair, the first microsatellites to support a deep space mission, are designed to relay data back to Earth this month when InSight reaches its destination.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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