There is a new focus at NASA on small satellite missions as forerunners for larger missions of the Solar System.
The NASA program, Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies gives a window for projects with small satellites to study Solar System's celestial bodies.
In the latest step, NASA has awarded $3.6 million to ten projects for concept planning awaiting their roll out after a few months. Generally, small satellites weigh less than 400 pounds.
Among the 10 projects selected, two are Venus centric with a focus on noble gasses and isotopes. One CubeSat project will be looking at ultraviolet absorption and atmosphere's nightglow emissions.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will be sending a 12-unit CubeSat to investigate the hydrogen cycle of the moon.
The small satellite from Johns Hopkins University will target an asteroid with a seismometer to examine its surface and interiors. Another CubeSat from Purdue University will image Phobos and Deimos — the Martian moons.
NASA Ames will deploy a CubeSat to Mars focusing on climate studies. The probe of Hampton University will be on Uranus and its atmosphere. The magnetosphere of Jupiter will be the core area of investigation for the project of Southwest Research Institute.
Utility of SmallSats For Larger Missions
Basically, SmallSats handle the delivery of preliminary data for upcoming bigger projects. The cost of launching SmallSats is also nominal.
"These small but mighty satellites have the potential to enable transformational science. They guide NASA's development of small spacecraft technologies for deep space science investigation," noted Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters.
NASA Convinced About SmallSat Utility
Green added that the agency is investing in SmallSats after being convinced of their utility for cutting edge scientific investigations.
A range of merits justify SmallSats such as deployment from bigger spacecraft to target-specific investigations to back main missions. The Mars mission of NASA will use this approach by despatching two small satellites for advanced data. NASA is also buoyed by the 2016 report by the US National Academies that said SmallSats technology has come of age to provide high-value science.
Cost Saving From SmallSats
There are many cost benefits from the use of SmallSats. They also offer the flexibility to operate in constellations.
"What we're seeing is a capability that we haven't really seen before in terms of small satellites that can do pretty good science at a much-reduced cost compared to the big missions," said Steve Mackwell from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland.
Mackwell said miniaturization helps in deploying SmallSats where larger missions had been thought about. It is an unprecedented opportunity in using them to explore inner Solar System bodies like the Venus and Moon.
Green noted that miniature satellites had posed challenges in the past with problems like difficulties around power and communication. Mackwell, however, points that there a change and critical advances have been made in their functioning.
An example is compact propulsion systems to reach places where they can ride and maneuver to the ultimate destination. Also, innovations have come up to incorporate solar panels into SmallSats to boost capabilities.
More progress is being made on the technology front. An example is engineers at Nasa's Glenn Research Center demonstrating printed electronics suitable for operating in the harsh conditions at Venus.