CubeSats offer a compelling pathway towards lowering the cost of interplanetary exploration missions thanks to their low mass and volume. This has been possible due to miniaturization of electronics and sensors and increased efficiency of photovoltaics. Interplanetary communication using radio signals requires large parabolic antennas on the spacecraft and this often exceeds the total volume of CubeSat spacecraft. Mechanical deployable antennas have been proposed that would unfurl to form a large parabolic dish. These antennas much like an umbrella has many mechanical moving parts, are complex and are prone to jamming. An alternative are inflatables, due to their tenfold savings in mass, large surface area and very high packing efficiency of 20:1. The present work describes the process of designing and building inflatable parabolic reflectors for small satellite radio communications in the X band.
Tests show these inflatable reflectors to provide significantly higher gain characteristics as compared to conventional antennas. This would lead to much higher data rates from low earth orbits and would provide enabling communication capabilities for small satellites in deeper space. This technology is critical to lowering costs of small satellites while enhancing their capabilities.
Principle design challenges with inflatable membranes are maintaining accurate desired shape, reliable deployment mechanism and outer space environment protection. The present work tackles each of the mentioned challenges and provides an
understanding towards future work. In the course of our experimentation we have been able to address these challenges using building techniques that evolved out of a matured understanding of the inflation process.
Our design is based on low cost chemical sublimates as inflation substances that use a simple mechanism for inflation. To improve the reliability of the inflated shape, we use UV radiation hardened polymer support structures. The novelty of the design lies in its simplicity, low cost and high reliability. The design and development work provides an understanding towards extending these concepts to much larger deployable structures such as solar sails, inflatable truss structures for orbit servicing and large surface area inflatables for deceleration from hypersonic speeds when re-entering the atmosphere.