Many small satellites might in the future do the same – or better – job as their single big equivalent. With that approach in mind, this high-frequency steerable antenna has been designed to link together orbital chains of shoebox-sized CubeSats.

CubeSats are mini-satellites built up from standardised 10 cm boxes, initially developed for educational uses but increasingly finding operational uses, such as constellations for telecommunications or Earth observation.

“The idea behind this project was to develop a steerable reflector antenna that is small enough to fit within half of a single CubeSat unit,” explains ESA antenna engineer Maarten van der Vorst.

“Stowed within the unit for launch, the antenna would then be deployed, then able to facilitate inter-satellite links between a constellation of CubeSats, for instance allowing individual satellites to swap data, or for one CubeSat ‘mothership’ to perform data downlink and uplink duties for the rest. With one antenna at the front and back of each satellite to transmit messages through an entire CubeSat chain, with our testing shows the antennas could operate across hundreds of kilometres of distance.”

This demonstrator antenna, which was built using hybrid manufacturing techniques – combining traditional machining with selective laser melting 3D printing – has been designed to operate at 60 GHz, offering high bandwidth despite its small size.

The project was led for ESA by PicoSats in Italy with ESTECO and the University of Trieste providing technical electromagnetic expertise and the antenna’s pointing mechanism respectively. It was supported through ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems Advanced Technology, ARTES-AT.