On the origin of satellite swarms

C.J.M. Verhoeven, Marinus Jan Bentum, G.L.E. Monna, J. Rotteveel

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    For a species to develop in nature, two basically two things are needed: an enabling technology and a "niche". In spacecraft design the story is basically the same. Both a suitable technology and a niche application need to be there before a new generation of spacecraft can be developed. Last century two technologies have emerged that had and still have a huge impact on the development of technical systems: Micro-Electronics (ME) and Micro-Systems Technology (MST). Both are ruled by Moore's Law that indicates that considerable technology updates appear at the pace of years or even months instead of decades. Systems that need a development time of more than a few years will inevitably be based on "out-dated" and thereby difficult to maintain and repair technology unless during the development constant redesigns are made. This makes the development of the system at least very expensive. Although expenses do not seem to be a frequent show stopper in the design of spacecraft, it is still very interesting to investigate what system architectures might evolve when the specific properties of the new technologies ME and MST are fully exploited. ME presently offers more than 2 billion transistors on a chip and MST offers mechanical systems like resonators, mechanical switches, propulsions units, gyroscopes and many other sensors that _t in a volume of a few square millimeters to a few centimeters. So it is possible to fit a lot of signal processing power together with the necessary sensors and actuators in a volume that is really very small compared to any know space system. Of course state-of-the art spacecraft will immediately outperform these units in all aspects apart from cost and quantity. For the _rst time it makes sense to envisage the operation of formations of tens to hundreds of satellites that are cheap because they are based on standard commercial COTS technology and system designs. These satellite swarms will not be the systems that replace all other space systems. But, like in nature, there is a niche where swarms are the optimal solution. It's time to start occupying this niche. Typical properties of a swarm in nature are robustness, redundancy, large area coverage, the lack a hierarchical command structure, limited processing power per unit and self-organization ("swarm-intelligence"). This paper discusses the technological trends that lead to satellite swarms, where they can go and what new science they can create.
    Original languageUndefined
    Title of host publication60th International Astronautical Congress
    Place of PublicationDaejon
    PublisherPress IAC
    Number of pages5
    ISBN (Print)1995-6258
    Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2009
    Event60th International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2009 - Daejeon, Korea, Republic of
    Duration: 12 Oct 200916 Oct 2009
    Conference number: 60

    Publication series

    PublisherPress IAC
    ISSN (Print)1995-6258


    Conference60th International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2009
    Abbreviated titleIAC
    Country/TerritoryKorea, Republic of


    • METIS-264155
    • EWI-16519
    • IR-68513

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