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Wednesday, 08 June 2016 19:57

Maltese Satellites Pt1/3

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Almost every communication device that you use in your everyday life today relies on satellite technology. So, what is a satellite? Well, every object that revolves in an orbital pattern around another object is a satellite, but in this article I’m referring to the artificial satellites that orbit the earth to provide data to/from space. No one knows who came up with the idea

Why is it important for Malta to have satellites and the Malta Sat Project (UoMSat1). Part 1/3
  • Why it is important for Malta to have satellites. (Pt.1/3) – Technical Background re: satellites.
  • Part 2: Malta’s business in space
  • Part 3: Interview with the Space team at UoM
  • Bonus: How to receive data and images directly from Satellites from your own home with your own laptop / computer
Almost every communication device that you use in your everyday life today relies on satellite technology. So, what is a satellite? Well, every object that revolves in an orbital pattern around another object is a satellite, but in this article I’m referring to the artificial satellites that orbit the earth to provide data to/from space. No one knows who came up with the idea for satellites, but the first satellite was put in orbit by the Russians and was called the Sputnik, The concept of geostationary satellites used for communications is credited to an article written in 1945 by Arthur C. Clarke in the British radio magazine Wireless World.[i]
Until recently, very little has changed in satellite technology except for the material technology and miniaturisation. That is until the technology available to the consumer market has now found its way to disruptors and makers alike which were not happy that satellites are extremely expensive to produce, reserved to an elite few and even more so to launch in space.[ii] Here I will not go into detail, but there are mainly two types of satellite positioning techniques, Geosynchronous (Gsync) and Geostationary (Gstat); Geo Synchronous simply means that the satellite has a fixed timing in proportion to the earth, meaning that it will return to the exact same spot in the exact same time of day (low-earth orbit). The Geostationary orbit is put in a magical spot in space where its orbit and speed match proportionally to the Earth hence being able to remain in the exact same spot in relation to the Earth (this is called a LaGrange point). It also needs to be around the area of the equator. There are another 4 LaGrange points, but I will not go into them. (if you want to learn more about the orbital options as well as the 5 LaGrange points you can read this article by NASA (its very user friendly) )
What is the difference between them? Well, in a geo synchronous orbit, If you know the orbit and exact timing your satellite will pass overhead you can synchronise your antenna and track its position in the sky with a tracking (moving) antenna. The other has the advantage that you don’t need a tracking antenna and you will calibrate the antenna (several pre-calibrated antennae exist – like the one in your car to receive AM/FM radio signals) and keep receiving signals with a fixed antenna. Obviously with a Gsync satellite you will no longer receive or transmit once your satellite goes bye-bye beyond your viewable horizon, hence, you need a network of satellites to maintain coverage throughout the day over a specific area with multitude of satellites going around the Earth each covering a portion of the globe (lots and lots of Euros). Or you can have an elliptical orbit which passes over only a specific area of the globe (the options are limitless only dependent on the use and costs). With Gstat, you will always have access to the satellite, as long as you don’t go beyond the area that is covering. (there’s a lot more to the science, like inclination, trnasfer orbits, self-adjustment, degradation, etc... will keep it simple)
You also have to consider that tracking antennae are very costly and need special equipment to both setup and run and we already talked that if you want to communicate with your satellite around the clock (which does not mean for example in the morning or in the evening – it may mean that you will be within reach of your satellite on a timespan of 3 hours every 8 hours, or something similar) you need a network of satellites. So why are not all satellites GStat, well , because they have to be quite far out to be in a GStat orbit, in fact, exactly 35,786km which equates to an orbit of around 23.934461223 hours (quite close to 24hours), that means that they are much more expensive to launch and place then a low-earth orbit satellite also it means that albeit GStat satellites offer a lot of advantages, they are simply not apt for all applications since, radio waves take around 0.25secodns to arrive to and from a GStat satellite to sea level (in certain cases that is much too slow). Also just for quick examples, a GPS satellite in a GStat orbit is useless as once you go too north or too south you won’t receive anything, that is why most uses require a Gsync Low Earth Orbit Network.
At the time of writing of this article, about 6,600 satellites have been launched. The latest estimates are that 3,600 remain in orbit. Of those, about 1,000 are operational the rest have lived out their useful lives and are part of the space debris. Approximately 500 operational satellites are in low-Earth orbit, 50 are in medium-Earth orbit (at 20,000 km) the rest are in geostationary orbit (at 36,000 km).
Image depicting satellites in space - credit:
Yes space is extremely big, well it is space, but this is what 3,000 satellites look like around the earth (actually they don’t each dot in this image is much larger than a satellite, they are so small in fact that it would be extremely unlucky if you were to hit one on your way up – or down) It is clear from this picture which are the low-earth orbit, which looks like a fuzz around the earth and there is the clear distinction of the GStat satellites forming a ring around the Earth’s equator, you can also see the medium-earth orbit satellites forming a sort of sphere, and the other more specialised satellites with their own orbits. So scientists and researchers alike are looking at how to have the best of all worlds i.e. have the advantages of the GStat orbit without the disadvantages of cost and all the advantages of GSync orbit (low-earth orbit) without the costs of tracking antennae and setup costs. Well the solution is simple build a lot of satellites so you can monitor the entire globe in low earth orbit.
However, there is a problem with that scenario, each satellite costs hundreds of thousands of Euros if not Millions just to build, let alone the massive cost of launching it into space. So, researches and scientists are looking to pull at both end of that equation by reducing the costs of satellites and reducing the cost of launching them.

Enter the CubeSat

Orbital CubeSat - Credit
A Cubesat is a very small satellite which is relatively cheap to build and are now making many things possible. They also help improve existing technologies to fill gaps in information. They also make it possible for many people to take part in the space revolution. With the size, affordability and speed of development – this provides a ton of advantages that more than make up for their limitations. The cost of building and launching Cubesats is only a small fraction compared to the cost of building and launching the conventional big satellites. Big satellites can cost 50 to 100 million Euros to build and to launch. With Cubesats, on the other hand, it can cost less than €100,000. It is an enormous difference. It is why many people are taking part in this. With the little cost and speed to development, more and more people are actively exploring and improving what they can do. CubeSat is essentially that - a nearly cube shaped satellite measuring 10x10x10 cm (3.9x3.9x3.9 in), although they are scalable along one axis - with a total mass of less than 1.33 kg (2.9 lb). The basic structure of a CubeSat is about 0.4 kg (0.9 lb), so a 0.9 kg (2 lb) payload can be accommodated. CubeSats have been proposed for everything from simple radio transponders to interplanetary missions. Look at it this way for the cost of a traditional satellite, a cheap one say €10M you can have a network of 100 cubesats in LEO orbiting the globe. Obviously where there’s possibility there’s competition…

Enter the TubeSAT

TubeSat open - credit
There is a company called Inter Orbital Systems (IOS) which promises anyone that they can place a satellite into space for €8K. They also give you a satellite kit and includes the cost of launching into your SAT in LEO. Despite their popularity, CubeSats are not inexpensive - by the time you have assembled a CubeSat and had it placed in orbit, your cost will be well north of €100K, a fortune compared to IOS's cost of €8000. The far more affordable TubeSat, oddly enough, has a hexadecagonal (16-sided) cross-section rather than the circular form one might expect from the name. This allows it flat surfaces on which to mount solar cells. A TubeSat has an outside diameter of 8.94 cm (3.52 inches), an inside diameter of 8.56 cm (3.37 inches), and is 12.7 cm (5 inches) long. The maximum mass of a TubeSat is 0.75 kg (1.65 lb). As the TubeSat with the standard electronics (power, communications, and microcomputer) installed weighs 0.5 kg (1.1 pounds), any additional payload must weigh no more than 0.25 kg (0.55 lb), and must occupy no more than about 5 cm (2 in) of the length of the tube - a payload volume of 288 cc (17.6 cubic inches).
The Neptune vehicle being developed by IOS is being delayed and hence why not a single tubesat has been launched at the writing of this article.
So what is the disadvantage with these satellites? Well, they have no propulsion system. Satellites in LEO will not stay in LEO for very long without self-adjustment as they are still under the effects of earth gravity, hence, they are self-decaying. Each orbit brings them down closer and closer to Earth’s atmosphere where they will find their demise in a brilliant flash of heat and fire (considering the dimensions and weight a very brief one J ) But, 46 of the 231 CubeSats successfully launched from 2000 through the end of 2014 — about one in five — will remain in orbit more than a quarter-century. Space debris experts and most big international satellite operators have agreed to re-position spacecraft in low Earth orbit at low enough altitudes to naturally re-enter the atmosphere within 25 years at the end of their lives. So, it seems that any small satellite will have a maximum life of 25 years which is extremely good. Giving a return on investment of around €4K/year which is quite acceptable.

Malta’s Time in Space UomSat1

3D Rendering of UOMSAT1
Malta’s time in space has finally arrived. University of Malta with funding from both MCST and private companies are building a cubesat. This is the first time that Malta as a nation is trying to put it’s flag in space. Albeit late and with the smallest step possible (well almost – at least it’s not a tubesat which will burn in just several weeks) but nerds are rejoicing for the possibility of ha having Maltese specific data coming from space. From traffic analysis to specific and real weather monitoring and forecasting through a multitude of environmental monitoring and geological data is now possible thanks to a dedicated team at UoM and beyond. PART 2 will deal with the Maltese specific aspect of the Malta’s Sat Project.

continued in Part2

If you want to see and track satellites you can navigate to: (space station)
In this series I will also make another blog entry showing you how I receive satellite images and decode satellite imagery direct on my computer with a Software Radio Device.
Read 1378 times Last modified on Wednesday, 08 June 2016 20:01
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About The Author.

I have been working in the IT and Technology industry for more than 20 years. Most of my work experience is international, i have worked with clients in the US, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, South and North Africa. I have two Master's Degrees one in Computer Science and the other in Management of Information Systems (Knowledge Management), i am Prince2 Certified as well as an Adobe Certified Expert and Microsoft Certified Professional. At the moment I work with the Ministry for Education and Employment in Malta. I am currently reading for two PhD's one in Education and one in Computer Science.

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