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ExoPlanetSat Nanosatellite To Begin Its Space Voyage In 2012

Question asked by kunal in #Coffee Room on May 22, 2011
kunal · May 22, 2011
Rank D1 - MASTER
Scientists and engineers at the MIT and Draper University have devised a bread loaf sized nanosatellite called the ExoPlanetSat. The tiny satellite will be the first of its kind and will be launched with the main objective of finding exoplanets. Exoplanets are nothing but the Earthlike planets i.e. planets that can support. Discovering planets with life has been one of the dream projects for many astronomers all round the world. However economic feasibility and some technological barriers prevented them from completing the project. Also, initial failures led to a reduction in funds for such programs because majority of the public find this merely wastage of taxpayers’ money. The ExoPlanetSat is expected to depart on its first journey by next year and will begin its hunt for alien planets.

[​IMG]The ExoPlanetSat may be small but is more advanced than any other satellite of the same dimensions. It boasts of advanced features like powerful optimized optics, high performance electronics and novel effective control and stabilization techniques. Séamus Tuohy, director of space research at the Draper University believes that this nanosatellite has the potential to successfully attain its primary objectives in a rather short duration of time.

This satellite will use the transit observation technique to search for planets. In this method, the dimming of a star is observed as a planet passes in front of the star while completing its orbit. The satellite will have an optical detector with two foci- one for observing the star and the other for measuring the dip in light during transit of planet. The fall in the intensity of light coming from a star will help in determining the planet’s dimensions. The time taken by the planet to cross the star can be used for calculating the spatial separation between the planet and star.

The transit observation technology has been used in the past by well known spacecrafts like the Kepler satellite launched by NASA in 2009 and the French CoRot. But the main difference is that size of the ExoPlanetSat is nothing compared to these satellites. The ExoPlanetSat is not meant to replace these bigger satellites but will act as a complementary device and will help them out. It will try to focus on stars and planets that have been considered scientifically important. To make the segregation of the jobs of the two types of satellite consider the fact that while Kepler keeps an eye on around 150,000 stars, the ExoPlanetSat will keep a watch on a single star that has been indicated as being interesting.

While designing the nanosatellite, the main problem faced by the engineers was to find a way to keep the satellite stable in the space. The stability is an important aspect that governs the accuracy of the satellite in measuring the light intensity of the stars. The photons from the light source must be incident at the same pixels on the optical sensor. A disturbance will lead to unusable blurred images that can’t be processed for calculation purposes. As this spacecraft is very small it can be easily pushed out of its trajectory. The team of researchers and engineers incorporated special avionics features and unusual reaction features for precision stabilization and accurate control of motion. The reaction wheels present at the base of the spacecraft use mechanical arrangement for maneuvering and altitude control. The special piezoelectric drives that govern the motion of imaging sensors work on battery while the rest of the satellite is solar powered.

ExoPlanetSat has a volume of three liters; it's 10 centimeters tall, 10 centimeters wide, and 30 centimeters long. The cost of manufacturing is also very less for the nanosatellite. Each nanosatellite will cost as little as $600,000 and their estimated orbital lifetime is one to two years. If the ExoPlanetSat successfully collects the information then the various governments may launch an army of such tiny satellites for getting the exact information about different planets and we might soon know if life actually exists anywhere else in the universe.

Image Credit: Engadget Posted in: #Coffee Room

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