That’s what radiofrequency engineers call the mysterious forces guiding communications over the air. These forces involve complex physics and are difficult enough to master on Earth. They only get more baffling when you’re beaming signals into space.
Until now, the shape of choice for casting this “magic” has been the parabolic dish. The bigger the antenna dish, the better it is at “catching” or transmitting signals from far away.
But CubeSats are changing that. These spacecraft are meant to be light, cheap and extremely small: most aren’t much bigger than a cereal box. Suddenly, antenna designers have to pack their “black magic” into a device where there’s no room for a dish -- let alone much else.
“It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” said Nacer Chahat, a specialist in antenna design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Shrinking the size of the radar is a challenge for NASA. As space engineers, we usually have lots of volume, so building antennas packed into a small volume isn’t something we’re trained to do.”