NASA dips into bargain basement with new satellite

NASA today 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.

These dimensions place FASTSAT squarely in the microsatellite category where it will compete with such as SpaceX's Falcon 1 and Kistler's K-1, NASA said.

NASA said FASTSAT is just the right size for earth observing missions, space science missions, and technology demonstrations. "We think we can do whole missions for less than $10 million instead of the traditional $100s of millions, and that includes the launch vehicle, the satellite, and the widget you want to test," said Marshall Space Flight Center's Edward "Sandy" Montgomery in a release.

The first FASTSAT prototype was completed in under 11 months for the relatively thrifty sum of $4 million, Montgomery said. The satellite is made out of aluminum instead of expensive titanium. And they used a design so simple "even a cave man could do it," Montgomery said. The design required few cuts in the metal, so fabrication was fast.

The satellite is also designed to be simple - no complicated rockets. Magnets provide its attitude control instead of jets, so there are no propellants onboard to explode. The satellite has no moving parts - no blades or momentum wheels whirring around. All of these factors add up to subtract cost. "We are kind of like the bargain basement of satellite building," Montgomery said.

Satellites could morph the same way that roles for unmanned aircraft have changed. For example, automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft, whose current roles are mostly in the military, will be used to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires.

And NASA continues to grow its own satellite programs. For example, it recently said its Applied Sciences Program will be using 14 satellites to watch the Earth's environment and help predict and prevent infectious disease outbreaks around the world.

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