Students from the University of Arizona are planning to put an inflatable "beach ball" into orbit — to serve an an unusual antenna for a compact satellite dubbed the CatSat.
"Following a successful launch, this inflatable antenna will be the first of its kind in space," explains Hilliard Paige, a systems engineering student at the University of Arizona who is working as the lead systems engineer on the project. "If it works, it will be a pathfinder for future missions."
The antenna in question isn't literally a beach ball, but it bears undeniable similarities. Designed by Freefall Aerospace in Tucson, itself a spin-off from the University's commercialization arm Tech Launch Arizona, the ball-shaped antenna takes up very little room during launch then deploys once the satellite has reached orbit. Filling with combination of helium and argon gases, the two-tone antenna — a transparent lower surface and a reflective upper surface — provides a far greater surface area than traditional designs, its proponents claim.
"This technology could drive down the cost of high-quality scientific measurements in space," claims mechanical engineering student Aman Chandra, who worked on the CatSat's inflatable antenna system, "by enabling the use of lightweight, low-cost antennas with very high data rates." Compared to traditional antennas — which the CatSat includes on its opposite end — the data throughput achievable with the "beach ball" antenna should be considerably higher.
The CatSat's payload includes a software-defined radio which will listen in to signals in order to measure the effect of the ionosphere. "The ionosphere's density changes between night and day as radiation from the sun affects the density of its charged particles," Chandra explains. "By listening to the strength of radio signals in the high-frequency range, we can estimate how the density of the ionosphere changes over time."
The CatSat is currently awaiting assignation of a launch date, which is expected to come later this year. In the meantime, more information is available on the University of Arizona website.
Main article image courtesy of Freefall Aerospace.