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Big Returns From Little Hardware: NASA Selects Three CubeSats Missions

CubeSat

This image shows one of the proposed CubeSat’s being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Image Credit: NASA / JPL

NASA’s cutting-edge work in achieving bigger results from smaller hardware took another step forward as the agency  selected three CubeSats missions  to fly in 2014 and 2015. The missions will focus on communications, formation flying, and docking systems.

The selections are part of the NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI), which provides opportunities for small satellite payloads to fly on rockets planned for upcoming launches. These CubeSats are flown as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites. The cube-shaped satellites are approximately four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds.

The three missions selected for  flight demonstration are:

— “Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna (ISARA) for High Bandwidth CubeSat,” Richard Hodges, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., partnering with Pumpkin Inc. of San Francisco. ISARA will demonstrate a radio communication system that dramatically boosts the amount of data that the small satellite can transmit by using the back of its solar array as a reflector for the antenna. This three-unit CubeSat will be funded at approximately $5.5 million with launch expected in two years.

— “Integrated Optical Communications and Proximity Sensors for Cubesats,” Siegfried Janson, Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, Calif. This pair of 1.5-unit CubeSats will demonstrate a laser communication system for sending large amounts of information from a satellite to Earth and also demonstrate low-cost radar and optical sensors for helping small spacecraft maneuver near each other. The mission is expected to take two years and $3.6 million to develop and operate.

— “Proximity Operations Nano-Satellite Flight Demonstration,” Charles MacGillivray, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC of Orange, Calif. Two three-unit CubeSats will demonstrate rendezvous and mechanical docking of small spacecraft in orbit. This project is expected to take three years and approximately $13.5 million in funding to develop, launch and operate. Partners on the project include Applied Defense Solutions Inc. of Columbia, Md., 406 Aerospace LLC of Bozeman, Mont., and California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo.

“NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program is structured to advance the capabilities and technologies associated with small, low cost space missions to enhance NASA’s ability to conduct more with less,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program at Headquarters in Washington.

CubeSat in flight

Flying high above Earth, CubeSats could potentially provide large power from small hardware. Image Credit: NASA

CubeSats are an international effort, with more than 40 institutes and educational organizations working on developing the small craft and scientific payloads. In addition to the benefits of each mission, CubeSats technology provides students with access to real-world design opportunities.  In the commercial world, CubeSats provide not only jobs but also the ability to continue NASA’s work in achieving ever-increasing gains from technologically-advanced small hardware designs.

NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program is specifically targeted to identify and support the development of new subsystem technologies to enhance or expand the capabilities of small spacecraft. The program also supports flight demonstrations of new small spacecraft technologies, capabilities and applications. In addition, it supports use of small spacecraft as platforms to test and demonstrate technologies and capabilities that might have applications in spacecraft and systems of any size.

NASA’s Space Technology Program is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.  The program  is designed to identify and support the development of new subsystem technologies to enhance or expand the capabilities of small spacecraft.

The program also supports flight demonstrations of new small spacecraft technologies, capabilities and applications. In addition, it supports use of small spacecraft as platforms to test and demonstrate technologies and capabilities that might have applications in spacecraft and systems of any size.

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Program and Small Spacecraft Technology Program, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oct

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