There's a small army of adorable, little, (sometimes) phone-powered satellites out in space, circling the globe. And while they're damn impressive for their size, they face some challenges. They don't have much room for antennas, for instance. But MIT's new inflatable balloon antennas should change all that.
MIT has developed two flavours of antenna. One is cone-shaped, the other is a spherical little balloon. Both can get squeeze all the way down to fit into a 10 cubic centimetre space until the tiny cubesat is in orbit. Then, once they inflate in space, they can make a cubesat's transmissions 10 times faster let it travel seven times farther. Also tiny satellite balloons are kind of cute.
The prospect of an inflatable antenna isn't totally new; large satellites have had antenna balloons before. But those all required a complicated pressure system with a bunch of valves and gas tanks in order to inflate. Too cumbersome for lil' cubesats. This system instead triggers a powder made from benzoic acid to sublimate into gas that fills the balloon in orbit. One button and — poof — balloon.
The antennas haven't made it to space yet, but they've held up well in vacuum chamber tests so far. Between this and penny-sized ion thrusters, cubesats stand to become pretty functional little chunks of satellite. Who ever said bigger is better? [Innovations Report via Wired UK]