I found myself curious about tiny satellites two years ago, when Sandy Antunes released the second in a series of four books on DIY (do-it-yourself) satellites. This seemed bizarre to me, when I received the press release, so I asked for a copy of the book, interviewed Antunes for an article, and pitched the Economist on a long feature about the topic.
Antunes was documenting (and learning himself and teaching in classes) the rise of CubeSat and similar small-format satellites that have a volume of about a liter and a mass of around one kilogram. CubeSat is a specific format, in which a frame can be created in units of 10 cm cubes and about 1.33 kg per unit. A three-unit (3U) CubeSat is 10 cm by 10 cm by 30 cm, and can have a mass of up to 5 kg, for instance. Antunes was building a TubeSat, a cylindrical format that was slightly smaller and needed to have somewhat less mass.
But my editor at the time and then a subsequent one and I agreed to wait. While the topic was rich, it seemed on the verge of something happening, but it wasn't quite there yet. I kept reading press releases, NASA announcements, and blogs, and waiting. Then, suddenly, things changed. After a decade in which about 75 or so nanosatellites (a category that encompass 1 to 10 kg satellites) were launched, in November 2013 and January 2014, nearly 100 went into orbit directly or through a mission at the ISS, which released them. The time was ripe.
I made piles of phone calls, read thousands of pages of reports, exchanged hundreds of emails, and took a visit to several firms in the San Francisco Bay Area from about February to April. The result is "Nanosats Are Go!", the cover story of the Technology Quarterly section (in print and online) of the June 7th cover date issue of the Economist. My editor also wrote a leader, which is a sort of fact-based opinion piece, often advocating a position, about the potential of nanosats and the worries that regulation could strangle them.