Manufacturers worry about smallsats getting too hot, literally

WASHINGTON — As small satellites become more powerful, manufacturers say they need better ways to manage excess heat generated by their electronics systems. 

Small satellites are increasingly handling more data, be it collecting remote sensing imagery or routing traffic for ground-based sensors and smart devices. Planet’s optical-imaging cubesats increased in onboard memory from 16 gigabytes a satellite eight years ago to 2 terabytes in 2020, a 125-fold increase, Chester Gillmore, Planet vice president of spacecraft development and manufacturing, said during a SpaceNews webinar Aug. 6. 

“That’s as a result of industry change and the miniaturization of electronic components,” Gillmore said. But gains in spacecraft capability “breeds this whole other challenge … with thermal management,” he said.

Planet builds its Dove cubesats in-house, but manufacturers with outward-facing businesses say they are facing the same challenge. 

“For us, the most important technology advances are going to be in thermal management,” said Craig Clarke, chief strategy officer at AAC Clyde Space. “We need to dissipate hundreds of watts on a very small satellite. It’s really difficult to manage that.”

Tim Lynch, executive director of the Space and Airborne Systems Multi-Domain Architecture Group within L3Harris Technologies, said power-intensive spacecraft functions, such as high-data-rate communications can generate a lot of unwanted heat. 

“We’ve built electronics packaging in very small volumes and getting the heat out is tough,” he said. “Thermal management is a big deal.”

Manufacturers and their suppliers are developing new ways to deal with unwanted heat on smallsats. Atlanta, Georgia startup Carbice anticipates seeing satellites launch this year with its new nanotech carbon fiber thermal management material onboard. 

Research and development company Creare of Hanover, New Hampshire, released a paper during the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference on a thermal storage system developed with support from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Cubesat builder Pumpkin also released a paper during the conference on a heat management system it developed with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory comprised of a radiator to disperse heat into space, pipes designed to transport heat within a satellite, and a heat-storage component. 

As cubesats and smallsats evolve, manufacturers said they are on the hunt for other technology improvements, such as better solar panels, improved cybersecurity and more capable sensors. 

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