On the surface, it might be easy to think that the Fukuoka Institute of Technology might finally have gone off the proverbial deep end with its development and launch of the FITSAT-1 back in October of last year, but this tiny satellite offers a surprising amount of benefit – especially for amateur astronomers known as "skywatchers,” but also for the wider technology picture as a whole.
FITSAT-1, as satellites go, is tiny. It weighs a meager three pounds (1.3 kilograms for those who favor the metric) and is covered in a series of light-emitting diode (LED) lights that flash continually in what look like random patterns until one of the oldest communication methods of all is applied: Morse code. FITSAT-1 – also known as "Niwaka" in a reference to Japanese art form "Hakata Niwaka,” or a kind of improvised comedy performance involving masks – was part of a launch of three total cubesats staged by Japan's H-2 Transfer Vehicle-3 and Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide in a process running from July to October of 2012.
FITSAT-1 packs a small neodymium magnet that constantly keeps it pointing to magnetic north, allowing its LEDs to be regularly visible from the Earth's surface. It currently works in an orbit between 51.6 degrees north latitude and 51.6 degrees south latitude, making it visible in a large swath of the inhabited world.
While the idea of a satellite that does nothing more than send Morse code at the planet – a communication technology largely replaced by other methods – may seem like a waste, the underlying idea behind the satellite's launch is actually quite sound. While it's giving amateur skywatchers quite a show, it's also allowing for the study of optical communications techniques to be used in satellites.
Better yet, it's also paving the way for a line of smaller satellites to make their presence known in general. Smaller satellites that can do the same things as modern-era satellites can have several critical advantages over their competitors that endear them to potential users like governments and businesses.
They're also smaller, which means it takes less fuel to launch them. The savings in fuel join savings in construction and operation to make a combo platter of savings that's hard for anyone to pass up, and even some regular amateurs – like the Fukuoka Institute of Technology so humbly describes themselves as being – may be able to get in on the action themselves.
What will technology look like when a teenage kid, armed with a particularly potent model rocket or a resilient balloon and a cubesat kit, can launch a satellite into orbit? The implications are quite wide-reaching in their own right, and may well pose something of a new quantum leap in technology for all concerned. Only time will tell what the fullest implications of the shrinking size of satellites are; some have already started showing up in the commercial asteroid mining concept. Ultimately, this could be the start of something much bigger than the tiny satellites that make it up.
Edited by Allison Boccamazzo