ELROI Satellite 'License Plate'

Once there are thousands of miniature satellites called cubesats in orbit, how will you keep track of them all? You need ELROI, the Extremely Low Resource Optical Identifier.


(How to identify and track tiny cubesats)

David M. Palmer and Rebecca M. Holmes, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, have published a great paper describing this idea.

Space object identification is vital for operating spacecraft, space traffic control, and space situational awareness, but initial determination, maintenance, and recovery of identity are all difficult, expensive, and error-prone, especially for small objects like CubeSats. Attaching a beacon or license plate with a unique identification number to a space object before launch would greatly simplify the task, but radio beacons are power-hungry and can cause interference. This paper describes a new concept for a satellite license plate, the Extremely Low Resource Optical Identifier or ELROI. ELROI is a milliwatt-scale self-powered autonomous optical beacon that can be attached to any space object to transmit a persistent identification signal to ground stations. A system appropriate for a LEO CubeSat or other small space object can fit in a package with the area of a postage stamp and a few millimeters thick, and requires no power, data, or control from the host object. The concept has been validated with ground tests, and the first flight test unit is scheduled for launch in 2018. The unique identification number of a LEO satellite can be determined unambiguously in a single orbital pass over a low-cost ground station.

(Via ELROI: A License Plate For Your Satellite.)

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein mentioned the idea of an identification beacon for objects in orbit around the Earth in his classic 1941 story Methuselah's Children:

They gave him an orbit; he matched in and steadied down, then set the Chili's identification beacon to his own combination, made sure that the radar of the ship's gig could trip it, and took the gig down to the auxiliary small-craft field at Goddard.

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