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Around 1,000 operational satellites are circling the Earth, some of them the size and weight of a large car. In the past year they have been joined by junior offspring: 100 or so small satellites, some of them made up of one or more 10cm (4-inch) cubes. They may be tiny, but each is vastly more capable than Sputnik, the first man-made satellite launched by Russia in 1957. And many more are coming.

Space hardware used to cost so much that it was available only to generals, multinationals and the most privileged scientists. No more. Many of these nanosats, as small satellites weighing no more than a few kilograms are called, have been launched for small companies, startups and university departments, sometimes with finance raised on crowdfunding websites. Their construction costs can be down in the tens of thousands of dollars, which makes them thousands of times cheaper than today’s big satellites. Admittedly, there is much they cannot do, but with that sort of price differential, and some ingenious use of the abilities they do have, they could be surprisingly competitive players on a number of fronts. In the next five years another 1,000 nanosats are expected to be launched (see Technology Quarterly).

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