CubeSat

NASA Engineers Dream Big With Small Spacecraft

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MarCO CubeSat
An artist’s rendering of the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft as they fly through deep space. The MarCOs will be the first CubeSats — a kind of modular, mini-satellite — attempting to fly to another planet. They’re designed to fly along behind NASA’s InSight lander on its cruise to Mars. If they make the journey, they will test a relay of data about InSight’s entry, descent and landing back to Earth. Though InSight’s mission will not depend on the success of the MarCOs, they will be a test of how CubeSats can be used in deep space. Credit: NASA/JPL

 

Many of NASA’s most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo — all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.

But in the past two decades, mini-satellites called CubeSats have made space accessible to a new generation. These briefcase-sized boxes are more focused in their abilities and have a fraction of the mass — and cost — of some past titans of space.

In May, engineers will be watching closely as NASA launches its first pair of CubeSats designed for deep space. The twin spacecraft are called Mars Cube One, or MarCO, and were built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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The Climate Cube on the Champs-Elysees In Paris (Eurpean Space Agency)

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Many locals and visitors to Paris are discovering a strange, large cube sitting on the Champs-Elysées.

Put in place by ESA and France’s CNES space agency, the Climate Cube is displaying the essential contribution of space and its applications on studying climate change, ahead of the COP21 climate change conference to be held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December.

With a huge screen on one of its 7 m sides, the Climate Cube focuses on how vital satellites are for understanding climate change, and how space is playing a major role in climate research and climate change mitigation.

While a series of videos on space and climate runs continuously on the screen, the other three sides offer an overview of European satellite missions measuring the ‘essential climate variables’ – 26 out of 50 are measurable only from space.

The Cube also features a high-resolution satellite image of Paris and surroundings, captured by ESA’s Sentinel-2A satellite.

The Climate Cube is standing on the Champs-Élysées, in front of the Grand Palais, 17—27 October. The nearest metro station is Place Clemenceau metro Champs-Elysées – Clemenceau.

About the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) provides Europe’s gateway to space.

ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

ESA has 21 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, of whom 19 are Member States of the EU.

One other Member State of the EU, Hungary, has signed the Accession Agreement to the ESA Convention and, upon ratification, will soon become the 22nd ESA Member State.

ESA has established formal cooperation with seven other Member States of the EU.

Canada takes part in some ESA programmes under a Cooperation Agreement.

ESA is also working with the EU on implementing the Galileo and Copernicus programmes.

By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, ESA can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.

ESA develops the launchers, spacecraft and ground facilities needed to keep Europe at the forefront of global space activities.

Today, it develops and launches satellites for Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications and astronomy, sends probes to the far reaches of the Solar System and cooperates in the human exploration of space.


When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars – a stationary lander in 2016 – the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space.  If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.

The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO).  CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.

 

The full-scale mock-up of NASA’s MarCO CubeSat held by Farah Alibay, a systems engineer for the technology demonstration, is dwarfed by the one-half-scale model of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter behind her.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basic CubeSat unit is a box roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters) square. Larger CubeSats are multiples of that unit. MarCO’s design is a six-unit CubeSat – about the size of a briefcase — with a stowed size of about 14.4 inches (36.6 centimeters) by 9.5 inches (24.3 centimeters) by 4.6 inches (11.8 centimeters).

MarCO will launch in March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on the same United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket as NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander. Insight is NASA’s first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. MarCO will fly by Mars while InSight is landing, in September 2016.

“MarCO is an experimental capability that has been added to the InSight mission, but is not needed for mission success,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “MarCO will fly independently to Mars.”

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) operations on Sept. 28, 2016, the lander will transmit information in the UHF radio band to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flying overhead. MRO will forward EDL information to Earth using a radio frequency in the X band, but cannot simultaneously receive information over one band while transmitting on another. Confirmation of a successful landing could be received by the orbiter more than an hour before it’s relayed to Earth.

MarCO’s radio is about softball-size and provides both UHF (receive only) and X-band (receive and transmit) functions capable of immediately relaying information received over UHF.

The two CubeSats will separate from the Atlas V booster after launch and travel along their own trajectories to the Red Planet. After release from the launch vehicle, MarCO’s first challenges are to deploy two radio antennas and two solar panels. The high-gain, X-band antenna is a flat panel engineered to direct radio waves the way a parabolic dish antenna does. MarCO will be navigated to Mars independently of the InSight spacecraft, with its own course adjustments on the way.

Ultimately, if the MarCO demonstration mission succeeds, it could allow for a “bring-your-own” communications relay option for use by future Mars missions in the critical few minutes between Martian atmospheric entry and touchdown.

By verifying CubeSats are a viable technology for interplanetary missions, and feasible on a short development timeline, this technology demonstration could lead to many other applications to explore and study our solar system.

JPL manages MarCO, InSight and MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Technology suppliers for MarCO include: Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado, for the attitude-control system; VACCO Industries of South El Monte, California, for the propulsion system; AstroDev of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for electronics; MMA Design LLC, also of Boulder, for solar arrays; and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., a Terran Orbital Company in San Luis Obispo, California, for the CubeSat dispenser system. 

For information about MarCO, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco

For information about InSight, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/insight

Learn more about NASA’s journey to Mars at: http://www.nasa.gov/content/journey-to-mars-overview

NASA’s CubeSat Initiative Aids in Testing of Technology for Solar Sails in Space

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May 20, 2015 
RELEASE 15-101

With help from NASA, a small research satellite to test technology for in-space solar propulsion launched into space Wednesday aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

The Atlas V sent the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane on its fourth mission, which also is carrying NASA’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will expose about 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days.

 

LightSail team members Alex Diaz and Riki Munakata prepare the spacecraft for a sail deployment test.

Credits: The Planetary Society

The Planetary Society’s LightSail satellite is a technology demonstration for using solar propulsion on CubeSats, a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. Using the momentum transferred from solar photons as they strike a large, thin, reflective sail would allow a spacecraft to accelerate continuously using only the sun’s energy. NASA is considering the use of solar sails on future exploration mission secondary payloads, and data from this mission will advance understanding of this form of propulsion.

This first LightSail mission specifically is designed to test the spacecraft’s critical systems, including the deployment sequence for the Mylar solar sail, which measures 32 square meters (344 square feet). The Planetary Society is planning a second, full solar sailing demonstration flight for 2016.

NASA selected LightSail as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellites to fly as auxiliary payloads on planned missions. It was assigned to a launch as part of as the 11th installment of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) mission.

The upper stage of the Atlas V included the National Reconnaissance Office’s third auxiliary mission to launch CubeSats. The Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat) carried 10 CubeSats — including LightSail — from five organizations. It was made possible through agreements between NASA, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office to work together on CubeSat integration and launch opportunities.

The cube-shaped satellites measure about four inches on each side, have a volume of about one quart and weigh less than three pounds each. LightSail consists of three CubeSats bundled together. Individual CubeSat research projects may address science, exploration, technology development or education. During the next month, the LightSail team will receive data from the satellite in space. As part of its agreement with NASA, the Planetary Society will provide the agency a report on outcomes and scientific findings.

Since its inception in 2010, the CubeSat Launch Initiative has selected 110 CubeSats primarily from educational and government institutions around the United States. NASA will announce the next call for proposals in August 2015.

For more information about ELaNa, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/smallsats/elana/

For more information about LightSail and the Planetary Society, visit: http://sail.planetary.org

For additional information about NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, visit: http://go.nasa.gov/CubeSat_initiative