Petite, square satellites to rule outer space

Small, inexpensive cube-shaped satellites could be all the space rage if researchers have their way. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant to SRI International to tackle the first mission of the tiny flying quadrangles known as CubeSats.

CubeSats are tiny satellites with dimensions of 10×10×10 centimeters, weighing a little less than 3lbs, and typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics components, the NSF said.

Developed through joint efforts from the California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University, CubeSats are expected to offer a cost-effective way of supporting space weather and atmospheric research, the NSF said.

According to the NSF: "Recent advances in sensor and spacecraft technolo­gies make it feasible to obtain key measurements from low-cost, small satellite missions. Space-based measurements from small satellites also have great potential to advance discovery and understanding in other areas of atmospheric sciences."

The first CubeSat mission, slated for December, 2009, aboard a Minotaur-4 vehicle to be launched in Kodiak, Alaska, will be lead by physicist Hasan Bahcivan at SRI International and aerospace engineer James Cutler of the University of Michigan. The mission, called Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX), will be a single triple-cube satellite, approximately the size of a half-gallon milk carton and weighing about three kilograms [about 7lbs], the NSF said.

"With signals from powerful transmitters on the ground, which are then received in space, researchers will make unique measurements of small-scale structures in the ionosphere that can adversely impact communication and navigation signals," said Therese Moretto Jorgensen, program director in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences in a release.

According to the NSF, CubeSats will be launched as auxiliary payloads on DOD, NASA, or commercial launches via a system known as the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). The P-POD features a tubular design and can hold up to 34cm x 10cm x 10cm of deployable hardware, according to a CubeSat paper presented by California Polytechnic State University. The most common configuration is three picosatellites of equal size; however, CubeSats of different lengths can be accommodated in the same P-POD.

Beginning in 2009, NSF expects to launch two to four P-PODs every year, accommodating at between three to six satellite missions.

NASA has been looking at small satellites for a variety of missions. Last year the agency said it has built a tiny, low-cost satellite it says will be ideal for adventure seekers or companies with high-tech space applications who need to get into space quickly and relatively inexpensively. The Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (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.

NASA is very interested in low-cost space missions. In May it picked six 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.

The Government Accountability Office has concerns about developing low-cost small, rapidly deployable tactical satellites however. In April it said while deploying such small systems is a US Department of Defense priority but the agency's ability to pull off such advancement faces a multitude of challenges.

The GAO noted that in fiscal year 2008 alone, DOD expects to spend over $22 billion dollars on space systems. Despite this investment, senior military commanders have reported shortfalls in tactical space capabilities in each recent major conflict over the past decade, the GAO said. The Defense Department is looking to small launch vehicles, unlike current systems, that could be launched in days, if not hours, and whose cost would better match the small budgets of experiments. The DoD and private industry are working to develop small, low cost, on-demand launch vehicles.

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