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Laos and Nepal to ride Japan's microsatellites into space

University project will expand telecommunications coverage to monitor environments

An image of Earth taken by the Tricom-1R microsatellite using Canon digital camera equipment. (Photo courtesy of the University of Tokyo)

TOKYO -- A University of Tokyo team plans to launch about 20 microsatellites over the next three years in collaboration with more than 20 countries, including Laos and Nepal, to supplement telecommunications infrastructure.

In addition to improving mobile communications in emerging nations, the project will also help them into space and perhaps spur future demand for satellites and related services.

Satellites under 100kg are usually classified as microsatellites. The team led by Shinichi Nakasuka, a University of Tokyo professor, made one that weighs only 3kg -- less than one thousandth the weight of a conventional satellite.

While in orbit, the length of time a single small satellite can contact a ground station is limited. Nakasuka's team wants to create a network of roughly 20 satellites circling Earth to ensure unbroken communication. 

In an early February test, the team used an SS-520 rocket from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to launch a Tricom-1R microsatellite, known as "Tasuki," into orbit.

Passing over Japan, the satellite received faint electric signals containing temperature and text data from a sensor on the ground. On the next pass over the country, Tasuki demonstrated its communications capabilities again by transmitting data collected during its orbit. The onboard camera also took pictures of Earth.

The relatively low costs of microsatellites allow smaller enterprises entry into the space business, which has been dominated by governments and large corporations in the past. Key to keeping costs down is keeping functions to a minimum and using off-the-shelf parts, including cameras and chips.

In Laos, mobile communication coverage can be spotty, hindering efforts to monitor the environment. Nakasuka's satellite network will supplement existing telecommunications infrastructure, facilitating measurement of water levels and temperatures from sensors installed in rivers, farmland and other locations.

The information can be used to monitor flooding and other changes to the environment that can have dangerous consequences, such as spread of infectious diseases. 

The inexpensive satellites could prompt emerging countries to buy their own and motivate them to begin space efforts. Microsatellites also have relatively short development times of one or two years, about half that of larger satellites. This encourages businesses, colleges and labs to explore their potential. In the near future, individuals might be able to enter the satellite business.

A Tricom-1R microsatellite being readied for launch by an SS-520 rocket. (Photo courtesy of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)

When it comes to microsatellites, quantity matters. Even small devices with limited functionality and operating lives can perform some duties as well as larger, more expensive versions. There may even be niche applications unsuited to larger satellites.

A study suggests that demand for microsatellites could grow to 460 launches by 2023 -- 4.6 times more than in 2016. 

Nakasuka's inspiration for a university-led satellite project came after seeing how colleges in the U.S. developed microsatellites. He introduced a similar framework into his research lab, tasking students with the entire process, from parts procurement and development to launch and operation.

The team's first microsatellite, "Hodoyoshi," was launched into orbit in 2014.

The University of Tokyo's collaboration with emerging countries showcases Japan's contribution to the globalization of space development while offering other nations an opportunity to learn aerospace technology.

As an added bonus, the project is helping Japan grow its own space talent.

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