Shoebox-Sized CubeSats Crucial To Future Of Planetary Science

Posted: Feb 24 2014, 2:16am CST | by , Updated: Feb 24 2014, 3:59am CST, in Technology News


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Shoebox-Sized CubeSats Crucial To Future Of Planetary Science

CubeSat technology on the order of a magnitude smaller and cheaper than conventional planetary science satellites should make its debut in lunar orbit as early as 2017.

Although such nano-satellite technology has now become relatively commonplace in low-earth orbit, it has yet to move into cis-lunar space; that is, the space between the earth and moon. But that will soon change says Pamela Clark, a geochemist and remote-sensing scientist at the Catholic University of America; as well as a consultant for both NASA and Flexure Engineering.

The conventional planetary spacecraft paradigm has long been that engineers pack as many scientific ornaments onto a veritable Christmas tree-like mission payload as technologically possible. By working in tandem in a constellation of half a dozen or more, however, lunar cube satellites — ranging from the size of a large shoebox to a microwave oven — would share the instrumentation burden, with costs that may be as little as a tenth of conventional planetary science missions.

“A first generation prototype for a single lunar CubeSat will still be $10 million,” said Clark. “But when you have a standard CubeSat [planetary science] platform, you will have an order of magnitude reduction.”

But Clark is not interested in simply cutting costs.

“Lots of people know how to do less for less; I could care less about that,” said Clark. “I’m interested in cutting costs and by using CubeSats doing more science. Lowering the cost barriers and creating a sustainable CubeSat [planetary science] model is definitely going to democratize access to space.”

This is not only an opportunity for university students to get hands-on satellite engineering experience, Clark says, but she maintains that universities will ultimately be where these
CubeSats will be built and integrated before launch.

“But funding remains the biggest barrier to my goal of getting 50 CubeSats in cis-lunar space by 2020,” said Clark.

Even so, Clark envisions a string of CubeSats in several different orbits collecting data around the geologically-interesting lunar south pole; lunar landers that deploy CubeSats; or even sequential CubeSat impactors.

The first CubeSat, explains Clark, would impact and cause surface disruption in a polar crater that would be measured by the second CubeSat. A second CubeSat would impact and be measured by the third; enabling a sequential sense of what may be happening to surface compounds and dust.

“The moon represents an analog for a lot of the chemistry in the solar system,” said Clark. “[That includes] the interaction of volatiles with radiation, charged particles and dust. There’s [probably] a Nobel Prize waiting for someone who can sort out surface chemistry under lunar surface conditions.”

A key component of any such successful CubeSat mission will depend on maximizing battery lifetimes; which, in turn, will be supplemented with use of solar panels, as the long two-week lunar night will subject the spacecraft to extreme cold.

Ultimately, the goal is for CubeSats to be able to choose their own science targets of opportunity.

“Adaptive artificial intelligence will allow the CubeSat to fly itself,” said Clark. “We would then marry that with a heuristically-smart system that can choose targets and track down targets. We’re also tweaking CubeSat actuators so that they will [decide] when to deploy solar sails or when the CubeSats use their micro-thruster propulsion systems.”

Once the technology is proven in the lunar environment, Clark and colleagues imagine that CubeSats will be deployed in warms in the rings of Saturn or around Jupiter’s sixty-plus moons. But first, the technologists would have to get around the challenge of powering the CubeSats once beyond the asteroid belt. That’s because nuclear fuel for planetary missions is now extremely difficult to come by, and the sun’s radiation at such distances is not sufficient to power most solar panels.

A typical CubeSat mission as now envisaged to the moon, however, would last between 6 to 12 months.

“But it really doesn’t matter how long you hang around as long as you get the right measurements,” said Clark.

The first lunar CubeSat opportunity is 2017, says Clark, when NASA is scheduled to test its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in lunar orbit. She says NASA is facilitating a competition for potential CubeSat payloads for the mission that would be carried aloft by the Orion spacecraft and then deployed in lunar orbit.

But beyond the moon, within a decade Clark hopes to see CubeSats deployed at Mars; doing realtime searches for active methane seeps, or forming a geophysical listening network on the Red planet’s surface.

In situ asteroid reconnaissance and even deployment in Venus’ dense sulfuric acid-rich atmosphere also aren’t out of the question.

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Source: Forbes

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