How CubeSat Antenna Uses Black Magic to Communicate

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“Black Magic” is what radiofrequency engineers call the mysterious forces that allow for the radio signals to be both transmitted and received.  New, miniaturized satellites developed by NASA may push antenna design to new horizons with a more efficient model and faster relay speeds.

The classic “dish” is the current standard receiver for radio signals. More technically known as parabolic reflectors, satelite dishes catch and concentrate transmitted signals. The larger the dish, the better the signal it can transmit and receive.

Designers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have recently developed an antenna called RainCube that is packed inside the new, lighter and cheaper CubeSat satellite. Together, the mini-satellite package is about the size of a cereal box.

CubeSat is Smaller, Cheaper, and More Efficient

NASA JPL designer Nacer Chahat and the CubeSat team have designed the satellite to measure atmospheric data like rain and snowfall, and they hope to demonstrate their new technology via a mission scheduled for launch in 2018.

RainCube’s space efficiency is partially due to the fact that the antenna looks a little like an umbrella jammed inside a small box: when opened, the antenna shoots out of a canister and its ribs support a golden mesh umbrella.

“Large, deployable antennas that can be stowed in a small volume are a key technology for radar missions,” said Eva Peral, principal investigator for RainCube. “They open a new realm of possibilities for science advancement and unique applications.”

“The goal is for researchers to receive data from far-away ground missions faster than they have before.”

The tiny size of RainCube antenna was possible thanks to high-frequency transmissions in the Ka-band wavelength, which is rarely used by NASA craft. This band of frequencies is capable of exponentially higher increases in data transfer over huge distances.

For instance, when compared to X-band, or the most common frequency used with NASA spacecraft, Ka-band allows for about sixteen times more data to be transferred.

MarCO and OMERA

Chahat joined the RainCube team after work on a different antenna, the MarCO’s (Mars Cube One) pair of CubeSats.

Proposed to fly with NASA’s InSight lander in 2018, the CubeSats would communicate with the mission responsible for recording tectonic forces on Mars. In theory, InSight will land on the martian surface and the two MarCO CubeSats would confirm the landing by transmitting data back to Earth.

RainCube and MarCO are technology demonstrations. They will test how well CubeSats could carry communication relays on potential missions. As humanity prepares to expand outward into space, the goal is for researchers to receive data from far-away ground missions faster than they have before.

Next, Chahat and his team will use the aforementioned designs to create a larger array called the One Meter Reflectarray or OMERA. As its name suggest, the array will measure roughly one meter by one meter and the antenna will be comprised of 15 flat segments that will unfold like MarCo and then telescope out like RainCube.

As its name suggest, the array will measure roughly one meter by one meter and the antenna will be comprised of 15 flat segments that will unfold like MarCo and then telescope out like RainCube.

Practical Applications

The main reason for the miniaturization of satellites is to reduce deployment cost, time and energy.

“New technologies like these allow NASA and JPL to do more with less,” explained JPL’s John Baker. “We want to make it possible to explore anywhere we want in the solar system.”

The hope is that these inexpensive designs will also enable countries with nascent space programs to begin monitoring the Earth’s atmosphere and beyond.

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