TOKYO -- Canon will put a miniature satellite under development in orbit in March on a trial mission, as the Japanese company seeks liftoff for a business that could generate tens of billions of yen annually.
Satellites are employed in fields such as communications, broadcasting and weather. But smaller versions are being developed for expanded commercial applications. Images produced from those miniature satellites can be used for agriculture, disaster prevention and container tracking at ports. Such images also can help determine the best places to build parking lots, among other market research uses.
U.S.-based SpaceWorks Enterprises estimates that up to 3,000 satellites weighing 50kg or less will be launched within a seven-year span beginning in 2016.
Canon Electronics, a subsidiary that makes precision components for cameras and printers, will handle the project. The unit developed the first demonstration prototype, which will be sent into orbit by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a rocket supplied by the Indian Space Research Organization. The two sides inked a deal after agreeing to the orbital path, the time frame and other conditions for the launch. The satellite will take off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southeast India.
Canon will operate the satellite for two years, validating the photographic precision and making calibrations as needed. The company will hunt for orders during that time. Canon looks to sell and operate the satellites in package deals, as well as provide images for clients that request it. The company aims to reap sales of about 50 billion yen ($482 million) by around 2020, and 100 billion yen in 2030.
The miniature satellite will come equipped with Canon's optical and precision technology burnished through the digital camera business. Production costs will fall under 1 billion yen -- a fraction of what is typically required for larger satellites. Canon's satellite weighs 65kg and measures 85cm by 50cm by 50cm. A telescope affixed to an imaging device based on Canon's EOS 5D camera will be installed.
The satellite will orbit at an altitude of roughly 500km, circling the Earth about 15 times daily. Images can achieve roughly 1 meter resolution, highly detailed for a miniature satellite. The satellite is to be capable of determining the sizes and numbers of objects such as vehicles, buildings and farms. It also could be used to collect data on landslides, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Canon also intends to launch a business in producing precision instruments for use in space. Some of the corresponding equipment in the first miniature satellite prototype was procured from other places. But the company plans to fabricate all the precision instruments for the second prototype, due to launch in three years.