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How small satellites are radically reshaping space research

An electron rocket will launch from New Zealand in August 2019.
Enlarge /. An electron rocket will launch from New Zealand in August 2019.

Sam Toms / rocket laboratory

Earlier this year, a group of NASA scientists struggled to choose which robot missions to choose to explore our solar system. U.S. researchers had submitted more than 20 fascinating ideas, including hissing asteroids, immersing themselves in lava tubes on the moon, and floating in the Venusian atmosphere.

Ultimately, NASA selected four of these Discovery-class missions for further studies. In a few months, the space agency will select two of the four missions that are to be fully funded. Each mission has a cost cap of $ 450 million and will be launched late this decade. There may be more opportunities for lost ideas in the coming years ̵

1; but until new opportunities arise, scientists can only plan, wait, and hope.

This is how NASA has been doing planetary research for decades. Scientists have all sorts of great ideas to answer questions about our solar system. Then NASA announces an opportunity and there is a frenzy for these limited slots. Ultimately, one or two missions are selected and fly. The entire process often takes several decades from the first idea to the return of the data to Earth.

This process has been phenomenally successful. In the past half century, NASA has explored most of the large bodies in the solar system, from the sun and Mercury at one end to Pluto and the heliopause at the other. No other country or space agency has come close to NASA’s planetary science achievements. And yet, as the plethora of Discovery-class mission proposals shows, there is so much more we can learn about the solar system.

Now two new technologies could drive NASA and the rest of the world into an era of faster and less expensive exploration. Instead of spending a decade or more planning and developing a mission and then spending hundreds of millions (or billions!) Of dollars to accomplish it, maybe we can do a mission for a few tens of millions of dollars within a few years to fly. This would lead to more exploration and also democratize access to the solar system.

In recent years, a new generation of companies have developed new rockets for small satellites, the launch of which costs around $ 10 million. Rocket Lab has already announced a lunar program for its small electron rocket. And Virgin Orbit has teamed up with a group of Polish universities to launch up to three missions to Mars with its LauncherOne vehicle.

At the same time, the various components of satellites, from the drive to batteries and instruments, are miniaturized. It is not quite like a cell phone that has more computing power today than a machine that filled a room a few decades ago. However, small satellites follow the same basic trend line.

In addition, the potential of tiny satellites is no longer theoretical. Two years ago, together with the InSight mission, a pair of CubeSats were launched that were built by NASA (and are called MarCO-A and MarCO-B). In space, the small satellites deployed their own solar systems, stabilized, turned to the sun, and then traveled to Mars.

“We are at a time when there are really interesting opportunities for people to complete missions much faster,” said Elizabeth Frank, Applied Planetary Scientist at First Mode, a Seattle-based technology company. “It doesn’t have to take decades. It creates more opportunities. This is a very exciting time in planetary research.”

Little Sats

NASA had multiple goals with its MarCO spacecraft, said Andy Klesh, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who served as the technical director for the mission. CubeSats had never flown near Earth before. During their six-month transit to Mars, MarCOs have demonstrated that small satellites can thrive in space, control their settings, and use a high-gain antenna when they reach their destination to stream data at 8 kilobits per second.

However, the briefcase-size MarCO satellites were more than just a technology demonstration. With the launch of its Mars InSight lander in 2018, NASA was faced with a communication failure in the critical phase when the spacecraft was to enter the Martian atmosphere and land on the red planet.

To fill the communication gap, NASA built the two MarCO 6U CubeSats for $ 18.5 million, using it to return data from InSight during the landing process. If InSight hadn’t landed, the MarCOs would have served as a black box data recorder, Klesh told Ars.

The success of the MarCOs changed the perception of small satellites and planetary research. A few months after completing its mission, the European Space Agency announced that it would send two CubeSats on its “Hera” mission to a binary asteroid system. European engineers specifically referred to the success of the MarCOs in their decision to send CubeSats on the asteroid mission.

The concept of interplanetary small satellite missions also sparked interest in the emerging new space industry. “This mission caught our attention at Virgin Orbit,” said Will Pomerantz, director of special projects at the California-based startup. “We were inspired by it and wondered what else we could do.”

After the MarCO missions, Pomerantz said the company received calls from research groups about LauncherOne, Virgin’s small missile, which is dropped by a 747 plane before the engine is ignited. How many kilograms could LauncherOne put in the moon orbit? Could the company add a high-energy third stage? Ideas for missions to Venus, the asteroids and Mars poured in.

Polish scientists believe that they can build a spaceship that weighs 50 kg or less (each of the MarCO spaceships weighed 13.5 kg) that can take high-quality images of Mars and its moon Phobos. Such a spaceship could also be able to examine the Martian atmosphere or even find reservoirs with liquid water under the surface of Mars. Access to the low-cost start was an essential factor for the idea.

Without this new way of exploring the planet, Pomerantz said, a country like Poland could possibly only participate in a Mars mission as one of several secondary partners. Now it can get full credit. “Even with a humble mission like this, Poland could really be put on the map,” said Pomerantz.

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