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Could Nano-satellites be the key to a sustainable future? Juha-Matti (Jussi) Liukkonen of Reaktor certainly thinks so.
In his TNW 2019 Conference talk today, he lays out the case for future of tiny satellites in building a sustainable future.
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Nano-Satellites could be the answer
Juha-Matti (Jussi) Liukkonen, Director of Space & New Technologies at Reaktor made his case today for the use of nano-satellites in building a sustainable future. He believes we should focus on swarms of tiny satellites rather than using bulky traditional ones.
The space industry is currently undergoing something of a revolution. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and steaming ahead with creating reliable reusable rockets. Prior to their work, getting into orbit required spending hundreds of millions of dollars and littering space with useless junk.
SpaceX and Blue Origin have managed to bring the price down by 30% already. This is only likely to get cheaper in the future as technology improves thanks to the inherent competition of the private sector.
Access to space, as Juha puts it, is becoming and will become cheaper over time.
But another area of the space industry is also developing rapidly. This is the advent of nano-satellites.
What are Nano-Satellites?
Traditional satellites are pretty large and expensive pieces of kit. They can be around the size of a minibus and are packed with highly sophisticated equipment from cameras to powerful radios and scientific equipment.
Costs tend to range from anywhere between $100 Million and a Billion Dollars a piece. They also tend to have a limited working life of between 10 and 15 years, says, Juha-Matti (Jussi) Liukkonen.
Nano-satellites, as the name suggests, are much smaller in comparison. Some can be held in one hand with larger ones being around the size of a microwave oven.
Nano-sats, like the ones being built by Reaktor's Space Lab, are very tiny indeed. But despite their diminutive size, they are still highly capable little things coming complete with solar panels and other equipment like hyperspectral cameras.
As they are smaller and much easier to make and get into orbit. Prices tend to range from anywhere between 1 and 2 Million Dollars.
This means they are at least 100 times cheaper per unit!
As they are so small, they cannot carry the kind of sophisticated equipment that larger ones do, but for the price, this is a fair trade-off. Once in orbit, they tend to have life expectancies of around 3 to 5 years.
Juha-Matti company, Reaktor Space Labs, designed from scratch and built their own nano-sat last year. It was delivered into orbit in November of last year and has exceeded all expectations, says Juha-Matti.
Called "Hello World", it is made from industrial grade materials rather than space grade. This means it was very cheap to build and is incredibly durable and reliable.
If a company like Reaktor can do this from scratch then anyone else can. It really isn't rocket-science, joked Juha-Matti.
What are the benefits of Nano-Satellites?
In his talk, Juha-Matti laid out the potential impact nano-sats could have on the future. He also gave some examples of industries that could benefit from significant cost savings by employing nano-satellites.
According to Juha-Matti, Nano-Satellites could have 2 very important implications for the future of us all.
The first is the fact that nano-sats will make satellite technology more accessible to a wider audience. Universities, individual companies, and even individual people (if you had the capital) could, in theory, build and own their satellites.
No longer will developing and deploying them be exclusive to Space Programs, like NASA.
Not only that, organizations and companies could have their own network of them for the price of a single traditional satellite. This opens up the possibility for specialization in their application and use.
The second implication for them is that they could be used to leverage massive savings for companies and even entire industries. Once scaled, they will provide a viable business investment for new startups or established companies.
Coupled with the fact that getting to space is getting cheaper, this means it should get cheaper and cheaper over time.
The space sector is also a growing and vibrant one. There are currently many private companies working directly, or indirectly, on developing space delivery systems.
in 2018 alone, according to Juha-Matti, more than $3.2 Billion of venture capital was pumped into companies working in the industry.
To date, according to Juha-Matti, there are somewhere in the order of 200,000 satellites in orbit already. This is set to sky-rocket once nano-sats kick-off.
How can Nano-Satellites help businesses be more sustainable?
In his TNW Conference talk, Juha-Matti gave some real-world examples of how nano-sats could improve sustainability.
One sector is the marine logistics industry. Currently, ships need to get from A-B as quickly as possible to load and unload their freight.
But oftentimes they need to wait at the dock before being able to load or unload. Speeding across the ocean also burns a lot of fuel - the faster they go the more resistance the ships have to overcome in water.
Last year, Juha-Matti, $1 Billion was spent in fuel alone!
Mini-satellites could be used to provide internet connectivity at sea which will enable better communication between ships and ports. This should help better coordinate arrival times and help ships slow down.
This could save 10% in total fuel consumption, Juha-Matti believes. The same is true for the aviation industry.
Nano-sats could also be used to roll out internet connection to remote locations around the world. Currently installing ground-based infrastructure is a costly process, and one not economically viable for most companies.
If nano-sats were used, this process would be relatively cheap and easy, making it very viable indeed for operators.
Another sector is agriculture. By combining techniques like precision agriculture with nano-sats, farmers could save a ton of cash, water, and fertilizer by better micro-managing their farms.
Targeted application of nutrients and water in places only where needed will save a lot of money and reduce the impact on the environment.
Juha-Matti believes farms could improve crop yield by 30-60% this way. It would also reduce fertilizer use by between 10 and 15%.
$155 Billion was spent on fertilizer last year spent across the whole agricultural sector. A big saving, like 10%-15%, would be of considerable interest to farmers.
But it gets better. Because more can be done with less, farms can either grow more food per area or, better yet, free up land to be used for something else, like reforestation.
A similar practice is performed today on smaller farms using spectral cameras on drones. The only problem is that this practice is not practical for larger farms in places like Brazil.
This is where nano-sats would be perfect.
According to Juha-Matti, we now have the tools to solve these problems. This will enable mankind to live more sustainably on mother-Earth.
Who is Juhu-Matti Liukkonen?
Jussi is Reaktor’s Director of Space and Robotics. He has over 25 years of experience in designing and building systems at the intersection of software, hardware, and humans.
He has worked with cars, robots, telco systems, and heavy machinery. Jussi represents the Finnish space industry at the secretariat of the national space council, has participated in updating the national space strategy action plan, and acts as the chairman of the board at a space tech startup RSL.