São Paulo hosts an international meeting of scientists to plan a small satellite network
July 03, 2019
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – Brazilian researchers from São Paulo State are to join an international consortium established to launch earth observation satellites, each smaller than a shoebox, in a formation designed to supply high-quality 3D images of the planet’s surface and cloud cover.
Large multifunctional satellites already in orbit enable the Internet, GPS and Earth observation, but networks of smaller satellites have recently been preferred because they can exchange data with the ground more efficiently and produce images of superior quality.
“The main advantage of minisatellites and nanosatellites is lower altitude [300 km above the earth’s surface] and hence lower latency, permitting real-time data flows. These aren’t feasible with geostationary satellites. Another major benefit is cost. Mass is usually the basis for calculating the cost of launching satellites,” said project leader Klaus Schilling, a professor at the University of Würzburg in Germany and President of the research company Zentrum für Telematik e.V.
Schilling was a speaker at the annual meeting of RLS-Sciences, a branch of the Regional Leadership Summit (RLS), held on May 27-31, 2019, at Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) in São José dos Campos, São Paulo State.
RLS is a forum comprising seven regional governments: Bavaria (Germany), Georgia (USA), Québec (Canada), São Paulo (Brazil), Shandong (China), Upper Austria (Austria), and Western Cape (South Africa). Within the framework of RLS, RLS-Sciences seeks to leverage bilateral and multilateral scientific research collaboration for the development of new technology focusing on energy efficiency and renewables.
One of the agreements signed during the meeting relates to the Telematics International Mission (TIM), which plans to launch satellites weighing approximately 3 kg each in 2021, probably from a base in China.
During the event, which was supported by FAPESP, researchers exchanged experiences and planned future activities.
“The event gave participants in RLS-Sciences projects a key opportunity to meet in person to discuss their work and plan further progress ahead of the 10th Regional Leaders Summit in Linz, Austria, next year,” said Euclides de Mesquita Neto, a member of FAPESP’s Adjunct Panel for Special Programs and Collaboration in Research and one of the organizers of the meeting.
According to Geilson Loureiro, who heads INPE’s Integration and Testing Laboratory (LIT), the meeting brought together companies, research institutions and universities in São Paulo State to bolster progress on their contribution to the small satellite project.
“We have the technology and the intent to participate in the initiative, which involves scientists from Bavaria, Shandong, Québec and Western Cape. The meeting was attended by representatives of São Paulo-based companies Visiona, Orbital and Cron as well as researchers from INPE, the Aeronautical Technology Institute (ITA) and the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC) to discuss our contribution and formulate a project funding proposal,” Loureiro told Agência FAPESP.
The group expects to have up to nine small satellites cooperating under the aegis of the TIM project, which will permit innovative approaches in areas such as Earth observation, scientific exploration and telecommunications. Although several small satellites are already in orbit, Loureiro explained, cutting-edge research in the field currently uses ground-controlled equipment. The project calls for the networking of the TIM satellites, with a formation designed to enable them to swap orbital and attitude data.
Bavaria is a project leader and plans to contribute three satellites. Québec is committed to providing a satellite, Western Cape to providing a camera, and Shandong to providing the launch base and one or more satellites. São Paulo also plans to contribute one or more satellites. INPE’s LIT will be responsible for satellite assembly, integration and testing.
“This is all entirely novel,” Schilling said. “We’re currently working on communication between satellites to ensure genuine cooperation in orbit. The more satellites we have in orbit, the better. With all these regions contributing, it will be easier to achieve our goals. The Internet of Things is widely discussed these days, with an estimated 25 billion objects likely to be connected by 2020. However, to make this happen, we need minisatellites and nanosatellites in orbit to materialize the Internet of Space.”
Loureiro stressed the collaborative project’s potential for innovation. “There aren’t any satellites operating in this way right now, with mutual control and intercommunication to coordinate orbit and attitude for the entire network,” he said. “Maintenance of attitude and relative position is very important and innovative, as is the use of solar-electric ion drive propulsion in small satellites, which is essential for repositioning.”
Four research lines
The RLS-Sciences meeting is held every year. Since 2002, the heads of government in the seven regions concerned have met every two years for a political summit. RLS-Sciences works to generate and support academic, scientific and technological exchanges as well as multilateral research projects in four areas: RLS-Energy Network, RLS-Expert Dialogue on Digitization, RLS-Global Aerospace Campus, and RLS-Small Satellites.
“We’re seven regions of the world collaborating in four broad interconnected areas – energy, digitalization, aerospace and small satellites – and working at three levels: science, business and politics,” said Fiona Rumohr, Project Manager at Bavarian Research Alliance GmbH. Rumohr is responsible for the liaison between Bavaria and Québec and is a member of RLS-Sciences.
In addition to facilitating international research collaboration and building a framework for innovation by researchers in the seven regions, RLS-Sciences also supports scientists by helping them identify funding opportunities.
“The regions are very heterogeneous but also complementary in interesting ways. A few years ago, we drew up an energy plan based on each region’s strengths in energy, showing the most developed areas and the most advanced technologies there,” said Gilberto Jannuzzi, Full Professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and President of RLS-Sciences.
According to Jannuzzi, the event’s energy agenda included a discussion of smart cities. “We presented a sustainable campus project under way at UNICAMP. The participants were all impressed. There are similar projects in Québec, for example. The idea is to learn to manage smart cities by managing the campus’s power grid as a small city and integrating transportation [including electric buses],” he said.
Additionally, in energy, German and Brazilian researchers are collaborating on research into the impact of renewables on the environment and how nature influences the process and participating in a multilateral study on smart grids and energy storage.
“We can contribute in several disciplines. We have engineers, economists and social scientists who form a group that can produce scientific input for policymakers. We’re thinking about the needs of each region for the energy transition,” said Sebastian Goers, a researcher in the Energy Economics Department at the University of Linz in Austria and a member of a research group on energy storage.
In aerospace, the regions are organizing to create a virtual aeronautics campus. “In addition to bilateral contributions with research partnerships, we’re developing a project called Mini Aerospace Campus, a totally virtual university to teach undergraduates and supervise graduate research,” Mesquita Neto said.
RLS-Sciences is also keen to see its research drive economic development. “The regions involved have shared interests and complementary research competencies. The more collaboration there is to boost innovation, the better. By getting different research teams to work together, we can accelerate innovation,” said Patrick Hyndman, Director of International Partnerships at Québec’s Ministry of Economy and Innovation.
Québec hosted last year’s summit of regional governments. “In 2020, the meeting will be on what we’re calling ‘smart regions’,” Hyndman said. “We have a lot to offer in this field. Québec has made strides in artificial intelligence, for example. We also want to integrate smart region technology with manufacturing and supply chain management. In digitalization, we’re interested in e-government, especially how to digitalize more government information in order to enhance transparency and efficiency.”
Agência FAPESP licenses news reports under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND so that they can be republished free of charge and in a straightforward manner by other digital media or by print media. The name of the author or reporter (when applied) must be cited, as must the source (Agência FAPESP). Using the button HTML below ensures compliance with the rules described in Agência FAPESP’s Digital Content Republication Policy.