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Nanotech Vs. NanoSat: A Small Introduction
  Nanotech Nanosat (or Smallsat)
What is its size?

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter – about the size of ten hydrogen atoms in a row or 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair.

For a technology or system to be classified as nanotechnology at GSFC, at least one dimension of the tech must measure no larger than 1nm to 100nm.

Nanosat is an often-used name for any small satellite. (On this site, the generic term –smallsat” also may be used to refer to any satellite under 500kg.) However, technically, a nanosat is a satellite in the 1-10 kg range.

Smallsat Classification by Mass (including fuel):

  • Mini satellite 100-500kg
  • Micro satellite 10-100kg
  • Nano satellite 1-10kg
  • Pico satellite 0.1-1kg
  • Femto satellite <100g
Why is this a good idea? Being able to manipulate matter and its fundamental characteristics could lead to amazing technological advances. Some ideas include:
  • Ultra-miniaturized computers that could be used in health applications
  • Ultra-light and ultra-strong materials that could be used to develop protective spacesuits to shield harmful radiation

Smallsats may enable those in some disciplines to gather data more cheaply and with more reliability. (For example, if a fleet of nanosats is launched, and one is lost, the effect is far less than if a single major craft is lost.) In the near future we will likely see cooperative constellations, local swarms of small satellites, inspection and service missions and flexible launch-on-demand missions.

But does this exist in the Real World? Yes. Stain-resistant material is an example of nanotechnology at work. Tiny particles on the fiber trap air around the fiber, making the clothing difficult to stain. Face creams, sporting equipment, and certain plastics also are nano-enhanced and readily available in the marketplace.

Yes. Goddard's own ST-5, or Space Technology 5 Project, is a trio of smallsats (19.5kg or 47 lbs. fully fueled), each about the size of a television set. They will be launched into a low-Earth orbit to will test and validate new technologies and aid scientists in understanding the harsh environment of the Earth's magnetosphere. On schedule to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in late February 2006, ST5 has a mission duration of 90 days.


What are dream applications for this technology?

In 3-10 Years:

  • Variable focal length telescopic mirror
  • Ultra-lightweight electrically conductive satellite tethers
  • Selectively rechargeable quantum chemical sensing assays
  • Variable conformation heat shield

In 10-20 Years:

  • Variable area radiometer
  • Variable area solar sail
  • Light-weight selective exposure radiation shield
  • Variable bandpass nanocircuits and components
  • Variable strength bionic-suit with radiation shielding
In 3-10 years it is likely that smallsats will become more and more common as the tiny technologies improve and become flight-tested. It is likely that projects will want to use smallsats, or at least smaller satellites, whenever possible to save on launch costs. However, certain applications only can be done, and done well, by big satellites; so there's likely to be a place for a variety of sizes of satellites ã at least in the near future.



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NASA Official: Peter M. Hughes
Last Updated: 04/30/2007