NASA ‘Smallsats’ Open Up New Planetary Frontier

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NASA is planning a number of small satellite missions that could open up new ways of exploring the Solar System. Head of planetary science at NASA, James Green said that the agency was investing in the technology and looking at how best it could be used. Researchers studying these “smallsats” believe they have now proven their utility for cutting edge science. Dr. Green explained, they could be deployed from larger spacecraft to carry out targeted investigations. These would complement the objectives of the main mission. Indeed, the Insight mission to Mars will test this approach, dispatching two small satellites to collect data as the mainlander descends to the Red Planet’s surface. But smallsats could also operate in constellations of 10 or much more.

The director of NASA’s planetary science division told at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas that, “We’re thinking about some other CubeSat concepts, not only at Mars but at the Moon, at Venus, at asteroids.” Dr. Green, at a NASA briefing here at the LPSC, said sending miniature satellites to other planetary bodies had previously presented challenges. “The further you are away, you get communication difficulties, power difficulties”. There’s a number of problems that arise from that. Dr. Mackwell cited a few advances that are already helping bridge the gap. In order to boost their capabilities, engineers are also demonstrating innovative ways to fold up solar panels into smallsats.

Progress is being made on the technology needed to achieve this. Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center recently demonstrated printed electronics that could operate for prolonged periods in the harsh conditions found on Venus. NASA’s announcement on smallsats follows a 2016 report by the US National Academies that concluded that the technology platforms had demonstrated their ability to provide high-value science. Last year, NASA put out a call for smallsat thoughts, which drew 102 proposals from the planetary science community. The space agency considered missions costing up to $100m.

From this long list, an initial 10 missions have been selected, two each for Venus, asteroids, Mars, the Moon and outer planets and icy bodies. But several more that didn’t quite make the cut this time could be funded in the near future as NASA prospers its mission roster of smallsats. NASA largely escaped the large cuts made to other federal agencies for 2018 in President Trump’s budget petition announced late last week. Its budget was reduced by only 1% to $19.1 billion.

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