Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are saying that they have developed an inflatable antenna made of Mylar for small satellites that can increase communications substantially.
The inflatable antenna works with existing CubeSats and is inflated once they are in orbit. The inflatable technology will allow CubeSats to transmit data back to Earth seven times farther than before. The antenna makes it possible to transmit from past the moon. The researchers tried two different designs for the antenna. After testing both the conical and cylindrical designs, they found that the cylindrical design outperformed the conical design. The cylindrical antenna was able to transmit data 10 times faster and seven times farther than the existing CubeSat antennae.
The reason the researchers developed an inflatable antenna is because large, far-ranging radio dishes are unable to be stored inside a CubeSat’s tight quarters. The inflatable design allows the antenna to be tucked away and inflated once it reaches orbit. One of the main issues the researchers faced was how to inflate the antenna once it is in space. At first they were going to install a system of pressure valves to inflate the antenna, but limited space wouldn’t allow it. Instead, they decided to use a sublimating powder, a chemical compound that transforms from a solid powder to gas when exposed to low pressure. Once the satellite reaches space, the difference in pressure triggers a chemical reaction and like magic the antenna is inflated.
The MIT team refined their design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The innovative design addressed the main limitations of CubeSat communications: size, weight, and power. The inflatable antenna is a low-cost, economical solution to the current communications problem.