Some ideas old and new on satellite design

The Learning Zone Minecraft Competition challenges you to show off your satellite building skills. You can build your own versions of EUMETSAT satellites in one category, or in the other category design your own satellite –  the only limit is your imagination!

But what are the limits for people designing and using satellites every day? Why do different satellites look the  way they do? And what goes into making a successful satellite? We made a quick guide:

The first satellite to go into orbit around the Earth was Sputnik 1, launched in October 1957. It was a significant development in the space race, showing that the Soviet Union had rockets powerful enough for the launch – technology which could also be used for weapons. The satellite itself was a sphere with four antennas pointing out on one side. It collected information about the upper layers of the atmosphere.

In 1960, TIROS 1 became the first satellite launched to monitor the weather.

Every spacecraft has to be designed with its mission in mind – needing an appropriate set of instruments in the right orbit, on platform of a size, shape, and weight that can be brought into space by an available launcher.

Spacecraft design for satellites going to monitor the Earth takes a lot of preparation. The satellite needs to fulfill the requirements that have been set out in response to what the users want the satellite to be able to do. All of the different instruments, communications systems and power systems must be able to survive the pressure and vibration of launch to orbit and sudden shock when the satellite separates from the launch vehicle, as well as the extreme heat and cold of space and on-orbit vibrations.

This means that the designers need to know exactly how each type of material they use will behave – how strong it is, how stiff it is, how it behaves in different environments. Sometimes new technology must be developed to allow the mission to work, and each new element of this technology must be designed, built, and tested. Before a satellite is flown, different models are built to prove that it works, before the final flight model is prepared for launch.

The satellites EUMETSAT uses are built by different companies under direction from the European Space Agency (for Meteosat and Metop), or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (for Jason-2).

Imaginary designs can do almost anything, but real world designs are restricted by what will fit on a launch vehicle – particularly how heavy it is – and by the risks and money involved.

Weather forecasters and climate scientists are always looking for new information to help them to do their jobs better, so the challenge never ends for satellite engineers.

You can read a simple guide for weather satellites from NASA here. Designing in Minecraft might lead you towards a real career in sending spacecraft into orbit.

About the Author

Ruth McAvinia

Ruth McAvinia

Learning Zone Writer

Leave a Comment