Communications satellites use high-frequency radio waves to transmit data, with antennas converting the transmitter’s electric current into radio waves and vice versa when paired with a receiver. Despite advances in modern satellite design and performance, antenna technology remains a limiting factor for next-generation telecommunications such as 6G.
Engineers struggle to miniaturize antennas for nanosatellites without compromising cost or performance. For instance, CubeSat nanosatellites can be as small as a 10cm3 cube, but manufacturing a communication antenna small enough to be stored inside it during launch and flight is expensive and technologically challenging.
“Many high-performance antennas reported for CubeSat systems are deployable, foldable, or inflatable,” explains Dr. Sangkil Kim from South Korea’s Pusan National University (PNU). Kim and his colleagues at PNU and the University of Alabama have developed a deployable antenna for CubeSats used in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Their design was inspired by the mathematics of the Japanese art of paper folding – origami – specifically a field called spatial mapping that allows them to determine the best geometry for a foldable, deployable antenna. They also used the dynamics of a planar spring to design a shape- and polarization-reconfigurable lightweight antenna. With the design on paper, they set out to manufacture and test the antenna.
Only 32.5mm3 when folded and weighing 5g, the prototype antenna fits snugly within a CubeSat. The researchers used an inexpensive material to make the bulk of the antenna, using special joints to fold the square boards into a cube, which can easily be stored during launch and flight. Once in orbit, the antenna can be deployed to receive and transmit data.
Kim and his team went one step further and set up different deployment modes, depending on whether satellites needed to communicate with each other or with Earth.
“The volume, radiation patterns, and polarizations of the antenna are reconfigurable according to the required operation mode,” Kim explains. This configuration enabled the researchers to optimize the antenna’s performance for each type of communication.
With promising results, the researchers hope their advancements will inspire future deployable designs for nanosatellite antenna technology and pave the way for next-generation communication systems, such as 6G. Their prototype could reduce the cost of future nanosatellites, improve overall performance, and be scaled up to larger satellites in geostationary orbit and other communication platforms on Earth.