NASA picks “bargain basement” space technology candidates

NASA today said it has selected six mission proposals that could end up being future missions that explore the Earth's thermosphere and ionosphere, the sun, black holes, the first stars, and Earthlike planets around nearby stars.

After a detailed review of the six proposals -- each of which will get  $750,000 to conduct a six-month feasibility study -- NASA will pick two of the mission applications in the spring of 2009 for full development. The first mission could launch by 2012. Both will launch by 2015. Mission costs will be capped at $105 million each, excluding the launch vehicle.

The awards are part of NASA’s Small Explorer (SMEX) Program which offers flight opportunities for highly focused and relatively inexpensive space science missions, NASA said. SMEX spacecraft are 400  to 550lbs with orbit-average power consumption of 50 to 200 watts, NASA states on the SMEX Web site.

Specifically NASA said its  Explorer Program seeks to conduct scientific investigations of modest programmatic scope. The program intends to provide a continuing opportunity for relatively quickly implemented flight missions and missions of opportunity that conduct focused investigations that complement major flight missions, prove new scientific concepts, and/or make other significant contributions to space science.

The selected proposals from various research teams such as NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and University of California, Berkeley are: 

n        Coronal Physics Explorer (CPEX): CPEX will use a solar coronograph to study the processes responsible for accelerating the solar wind and generating the coronal mass ejections that can impact the Earth.

n        Gravity and Extreme Magnetism(GEMS): GEMS will use an X-ray telescope to track the flow of highly magnetized matter into supermassive black holes.

n        Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS): IRIS will use a solar telescope and spectrograph to reveal the dynamics of the solar chromosphere and transition region.

n        Joint Astrophysics Nascent Universe Satellite (JANUS): JANUS will use a gamma-ray burst monitor to point its infrared telescope at the most distant galaxies to measure the star-formation history of the universe.

n        Neutral Ion Coupling Explorer (NICE): NICE will use a suite of remote sensing and in situ instruments to discover how winds and the composition of the upper atmosphere drive the electrical fields and chemical reactions that control the Earth's ionosphere.

n        Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS): TESS will use a bank of six telescopes to observe the brightest 2.5 million stars and discover more than 1,000 Earth-to-Jupiter-sized planets around them. 

Low-cost, highly targeted systems are one of NASA’s priorities these days. In April, for example, NASA said it would team with m2mi to develop very small satellites, called nanosats which weigh between 11 to 110lb, for the development of telecommunications and networking services in space.  Nanosatellites will be produced using low-cost, mass-production techniques.  NASA said large groups of nanosatellites can be grouped in a constellation, that will be placed in low Earth orbit to offer new telecommunications and networking systems and services.NASA and m2mi will develop what they call fifth generation telecommunications and networking systems for TCP/IP-based networks and related services.

In November, the space agency rolled out its Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT).  The FASTSAT is 39.5 inches in diameter - not much larger than an exercise ball. It is hexagonally shaped and clocks in at a little less than 200 Lbs. It can carry a payload up to 110 Lbs. The first FASTSAT prototype was completed in under 11 months for the relatively thrifty sum of $4 million, NASA said.  

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