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Introducing CubeSats: NASA's Tool to Swarm the Heavens

Aug 15, 2014 04:30 PM EDT
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Bigger isn't always better. Incredibly small satellites, no larger than a loaf of bread, are the next generation of high-tech satellites, according to engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. These little guys are pioneering new technologies and are due to be at the forefront of future climate investigations.

These tiny satellites, called "CubeSat" spacecraft, have already gained popularity in NASA missions, thanks to both thier size and cost efficiency.

"Every pound that you send into space costs a phenomenal amount of money," Todd Bonalsky, an electrical engineer at Goddard, said in a recent release. "Hence in the investment in CubeSats, which are tiny, complete satellites that are cheaper and easier to build than their larger counterparts."

Thanks to their smaller expense and ease to build, researcher have already proposed to use experimental CubeSats for a number of missions.

Bonalsky himself is slated to launch a Dellingr CubeSat later next year to test a new lightweight magnetometer system - an analytic device that will record magnetic fluctuations around Earth's orbit. Accoring to the engineer, the Dellinger's data will hopefully help researchers better understand how space weather affects Earth.

in 2016, an even newer generation of CubeSat cleverly called the "IceCube" will test out the next generation of radiometer technology intended for atmospheric analysis.

"Climate scientists have never used this frequency to measure cloud ice from space before," Jeffrey Piepmeier, associate head of Goddard's Microwave Instruments and Technology Branch excitedly explained.

A crowd-sourced project to put a scrapbook of 2014 life on Mars has also recently  revealed that it plans to use a CubeSat for the final delivery, where the tiny satellite can simply drop off a Mars-bound time capsule in a fly-by.

Of course, limited by its size, a single CubeSat cannot possibly expect to power some of NASA's formidable scientific instruments. Worse, communication abilities are limited by the same power problem.

However NASA experts plan to overcome those limitation with new strategies - namely strength in numbers.

"Instead of pouring money into one big satellite, we try to make a swarm," said Robert Clayton, a Goddard intern from Dartmouth College. "It's okay if we lose two or three from our swarm of 20. We instead focus on making each CubeSat as cheap and reproducible as possible."

And maybe eventually these tiny cubes will swam the skies.

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