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

University of Stuttgart develops a computer for pint-sized satellites

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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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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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