60-Second Science

Developing Countries Get in Satellite Game

Programs that build satellites from commonly available electronics are making satellite manufacture available to developing nations. Cynthia Graber reports

Developing countries don’t have the same access to satellite information as do first-world nations. A given country might want to monitor dust storms, measure rice yields or track population migrations. But satellites were typically built one-at-a-time and were very pricey items.

Now countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Turkey are building their own satellite capabilities. Thanks to small companies and university research groups that pioneered methods to build smaller, cheaper satellites from everyday electronics. This emerging trend was reviewed in a paper in the journal Acta Astronautica. [Danielle Wood and Annalisa Weigel, "Building technological capability within satellite programs in developing countries"]

For example, England’s University of Surrey spun out a company that today sells remote-sensing satellites about the size of a refrigerator. The company also offers training to countries that can send engineers to learn how to build satellites back at home.

The M.I.T.-based authors of the journal article note that the trend could exacerbate some problems, such as the growing congestion in earth orbit as well as the danger of spreading space debris.

But the knowledge can also spread. South Korea focused on developing a satellite-building program in the early 1990s, and they’re now teaching countries such as Dubai and Malaysia. So that everyone can get some help from above.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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