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Researcher develops cost-efficient miniature satellites for space exploration

By Dana Yates

Krishna Kumar and his research team celebrated a major achievement in the field of miniature satellite development – his was the first Canadian university lab to construct a femto satellite.

Krishna Kumar and his research team celebrated a major achievement in the field of miniature satellite development – his was the first Canadian university lab to construct a femto satellite.

The focus of Krishna dev Kumar's research may be physically small, but it promises to make a big impact on future space missions. 

A Canada Research Chair in Space Systems, Kumar is also a professor in Ryerson’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. And his work with satellites involves a small twist – they are miniature.

For example, "pico" satellites weigh between 100 grams and one kilogram. "femto" satellites, meanwhile, are even smaller – no bigger than a cell phone and weighing less than 100 grams. In September 2009, Kumar’s research team celebrated a major achievement in the field of miniature satellite development by being the first Canadian university lab to construct a femto satellite.

The true value of small-sized satellites can be measured in dollars and cents. Made from affordable and readily available components, miniature satellites offer tremendous savings in terms of launch costs. While it costs between $10,000 and $25,000 per kilogram to send a conventional satellite into orbit, a femto satellite may cost one-tenth as much.

Working on miniaturized satellite technologies requires large credentials. On that note, in 2006 Kumar won an Early Researcher Award (ERA) from Ontario's Ministry of Research and Innovation. The ERA program, which provides $140,000 in funding, helps recently appointed and particularly outstanding researchers build their research teams and endeavours.

"Pico and femto satellites are emerging fields of research, and there are many avenues to explore," he says. In fact, Kumar's lab is home to nearly 20 researchers, including post-doctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students in electrical engineering and aerospace engineering. Individually and collectively, these team members are working on multiple projects with one goal: to enhance the design, movement and control of miniature satellites.

Kumar's lab is also collaborating with York and McGill Universities and the Canadian Space Agency. Specifically, the researchers are exploring ways to improve the attitude control system, which controls the orientation of a spacecraft. The challenge is to design a control technique that is able to control the satellite even in the event of an actuator failure.

Kumar's team is also investigating ways to increase a small satellite's payload. There is precious little power available on board, and the researchers are investigating whether or not a miniature satellite can carry, for example, a camera.

"Clearly, small satellites come with big issues," Kumar says. "But by solving those issues, we can create satellites that are more useful and will provide more meaningful assistance in space research and exploration."


Read more research news at:
www.ryerson.ca/research

If you are a faculty member and would like to submit your current research as a story idea, please email a brief summary to stoye@ryerson.ca