“In times of change, the learners shall inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer
Rush hour in Low Earth Orbit looks much different than rush hour as we know it. The Martians in your classroom may someday be either competing with other industries in low earth orbit or relying on these technologies for other industries. It really wasn’t that long ago when the two greatest superpowers were vying to put satellites into space. Now, 50 nations have satellites in low Earth orbit. An organization interested in putting a satellite into geostationary orbit for television broadcasting or military communications from Thailand can have the thing in orbit 25,000 miles above Earth within two years. What’s more, competitors are pushing that lead time down to eighteen months or less. The cost is plummeting, all thanks to competition among private industry.
Already the slots in geostationary orbit and low Earth orbit are beginning to get crowded. At last count, 1,469 satellites were in orbit, a third of them American. Currently, competition exists largely because of governments, and the large price of putting a satellite into orbit—at least $50 million and as much as half a billion. The majority of that price comes from the cost of the rocket, vehicle, and fuel. Most of the rocket, in fact, is fuel—including the fuel required to carry the fuel. To launch a satellite into low Earth orbit, the rocket must push against gravity and atmosphere to achieve a speed of 17,000 miles an hour. For geostationary orbit, the required speed is 6,875 miles an hour. The greater the weight of the launch vehicle, spacecraft and satellite, the higher the cost. Not long ago, the price per pound of sending an object into low Earth orbit was about $5,000. Now, the Russian Proton-M rocket may have cut that cost by half.
Musk’s SpaceX intends to drive the price down still further—far enough to create a true private market in space. One big cost-saving measure is the reusable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rocket. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have built working VTOL rockets. SpaceX, with its big Falcon Heavy rocket, promises a price per pound in low Earth orbit of $709. Whether or not Musk can achieve that goal, the goal itself is crucial. Private industry is exceptionally good at producing technology that can conduct repeated tasks at a low cost. This sort of feat is the basis for whole economies.
Capitalism itself, of course, is based on competition, and the number of companies vying to put satellites into space is growing. Jeff Bezos is one of Musk’s most celebrated competitors. But Blue Origin is just one of at least 16 companies, along with three commercial wings of national space agencies, making rockets to launch satellites commercially. Two are European partnerships, several American, three Russian, along with Japanese, Iranian, Indian, and assorted multinational firms. All are vying to bring launch costs down.
Another way to lower the cost of satellites is to make them smaller—much smaller. The miniaturization of electronic circuits has allowed for satellites to shrink dramatically. Sputnik, two feet in diameter, could do nothing more than emit radio pulses. The largest satellite currently in space, a top-secret spy satellite launched by the U.S. military in 2010, is floating in geosynchronous orbit over the equator. It required a massive lift by a Delta IV Heavy rocket, capable of 1.9 million pounds of thrust. While the Pentagon will not release the figures, the cost was certainly substantial.
By contrast, a new market is springing up for nanosatellites, complex equipment weighing just two to 22 pounds. These satellites can be launched individually or in clusters, saving huge amounts of fuel and allowing the development of small specialized rockets to carry them. Then there are the emerging picosatellites, super lightweights of a couple pounds or less, which can be launched in swarms. Among the most famous is the CubeSat, originally conceived by engineers at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford in 1999. This cube of circuitry and communications equipment, weighing two pounds, can be built and launched for as little as $150,000. A CubeSat can piggyback with larger equipment on a rocket launch, sent out from the International Space Station, or be deployed in groups to communicate with a mother satellite. CubeSats are ideal for high-risk laboratory experiments—science with a relatively low chance of success. NASA recently announced a Cube Quest Challenge to design picosatellites to orbit the Moon in 2018. Five teams, a mixture of universities and private companies, have won $20,000 prizes for completing the first round and will have the opportunity to win, and offers a total of $5 million to teams that meet the challenge objectives.
The “Three Satellites Problem” reinforces Math in Space while allowing student to solve problems with real-world application. Problem solving is an important aspect of the Martian Classroom. Visit the site and give your students a go at it: https://www.mathopenref.com/problemsatellites.html
Visit the Physics Classroom for Mathematics of Satellite Motion, Orbital Speed Equations, The Acceleration Equation, Practice Questions, and more activities to bring Space into your math space: http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/circles/Lesson-4/Mathematics-of-Satellite-Motion
NASA has a slew of rocket resources and activities to incorporate in the classroom. Visit https://www.pinterest.com/explore/rockets/ that add the “A” to STEM for some STEAMY activities to incorporate in your Martian Classroom!
Capitalism is based on competition. Create a project for students to create their own industry for low earth orbit, around industries such as satellites, tourism, or travel. Create a shark tank concept for students to pitch their ideas, and then create a business plan and design for their new venture.
NASA for Educators has a “Build It Yourself: Satellite!” game on its website for grades 5-12. Students choose what science they want the satellite to study, such as black holes, exoplanets, star formation, galaxies, or early universe. They then select wavelengths (ultraviolet, optical, x-ray, infrared, microwave, or gamma ray), instruments such as X-Ray Spectrometer or X-Ray Camera, and optics such as segmented or single primary. After exploring, students discover which NASA mission has data similar to the mission they have created. Check it out!
Visit the NASA Milestones: Calendar Years 2016-2021 with your Martians and discover what’s next for low earth orbit, satellites, and more.