NSF Taps Tiny CubeSats for Big Space Science
Cubesats, shown above being built at Montana State University, provide a relatively inexpensive way for students to see their projects designed, built, tested, launched and operated in space while still in school.
Credit: MSU/Erin Raley

This story was updated at 3:07 p.m. EDT.

GOLDEN, Colo. — The National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched a program to use tiny CubeSats for science missions dedicated to space weather and atmospheric research.

The Arlington, Va.-based NSF?s interest in CubeSats stems from a recommendation in the June 2006 ?Report of the Assessment Committee for the National Space Weather Program — an interagency initiative to speed improvement of space weather services.?

One of the report?s recommendations emphasized that agencies involved in space weather work should look into the feasibility of using micro-satellites with miniaturized sensors to provide cost-effective science and operational data sources for space weather applications such as: improving understanding of space weather, helping predict conditions in the space environment and measuring the physical processes that affect the state of the sun and solar wind, as well as impacts they have upon Earth?s magnetosphere, ionosphere and upper atmosphere.

Training the next generation

The first solicitation for mission proposals in the new NSF program was issued in late February, resulting in proposals for 29 CubeSat science missions, explained Therese Moretto Jorgensen, program director in the Upper Atmospheric Research Section of NSF?s Geosciences Directorate, Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

On Tuesday, the NSF selected "CubeSat-based Ground-to-Space Bistatic Radar Experiment — Radio Aurora Explorer," a collaborative space science project to be undertaken by Hasan Bahcivan of SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif. and James Cutler of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. The selected experiment is slated to fly in December 2009.

?If anybody thought that these CubeSats would not do things ? this set of proposals just proved everybody so wrong,? Jorgensen told SPACE.com. ?There are a lot of questions in space weather research that are still being struggled with ? even though we?ve been flying satellites for many years now,? she said. Furthermore, the NSF program is meant to help train the next generation of experimental space scientists and aerospace engineers, she added.

NSF organized a workshop in May 2007 to bring together elements of the small satellite community. That gathering, Jorgensen said, focused attention not only on the scientific utility of small spacecraft, but also spotlighted the prospect that CubeSats can provide training opportunities for young engineers.

That combining of science research needs and young professional development is one of NSF?s strong desires, Jorgensen added. However, what also came out of last year?s meeting, she said, was appreciating the scarcity of affordable launch.

Spring-loaded research

One focus of the CubeSat program is to facilitate launch of satellites as secondary payloads on existing missions using the standardized CubeSat deployment system, the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, or P-POD.

Designed by the Aerospace Engineering Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, a P-POD is a tubular, spring-loaded mechanism designed to take up very little space. It can be integrated into any launch vehicle and protects primary payloads from the CubeSats and vice versa.

Launch of the P-PODS will be as auxiliary payloads on Department of Defense, NASA or commercial launches, according to the NSF program solicitation.

?We don?t have a big NASA-type budget to do this. That?s why we are starting our program with CubeSat. Student missions are by nature low cost. I thought it was worth a shot,? Jorgensen said.

The 2007 workshop underscored the feasibility that scientific satellite missions in the $1 million to $10 million range (including launch) are possible. However, while launches and launch opportunities are plentiful, securing regular, low-cost access to space for small scientific payloads is not easy, Jorgensen said.

Low-cost way

CubeSats are small. They typically measure about 10 centimeters across and weigh about 1 kilogram. A CubeSat can be held in the palm of your hand, making use of standardized shapes that enable them to be economically produced over a short period of time. They are considered ideal for students who can see a CubeSat designed, built, tested, launched and operated in space while they are still in school.

Having NSF foot the bill on CubeSat work — rather than NASA — ?is a real change,? said Bob Twiggs, CubeSat project co-director in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University in California. ?They want to do space weather, and I believe the only way to get some space missions with shrinking budgets is to go this low-cost way,? he told SPACE.com.

Twiggs said the CubeSat community views NSF?s interest — as well as the recent announcement that the U.S. Army may be building CubeSats — as all good news, seemingly taking the original concept of a ?toy satellite? into the realm of being able to do real space missions with them.

Jorgensen said the first launch opportunity for the NSF satellite program to support space weather and atmospheric research will be with the Department of Defense Space Test Program — a launch slated for December 2009 aboard a Minotaur-4 launch vehicle out of Kodiak, Alaska.

Starting a pipeline

The NSF will spend $500,000 to start the program, Jorgensen said, but her wish is to add another $1 million in 2009. ?We hope to start a pipeline of missions depending on how the budget turns out for 2009. We will start fast or slow, but we are committed to start a pipeline.?

The goal of the NSF program is to construct a five- to 10-year program with annual proposal competitions. The CubeSat support is a first step, she said. Another goal is to secure a series of regular, low-cost launches, spawned by establishing partnerships with other government agencies and private industry, Jorgensen said.

While the CubeSat proposals to NSF showed the strength, creativity and innovation of the community, Jorgensen said more work appears to be needed on three-axis stabilization of the small spacecraft. Still, much of the CubeSat work done during the last several years has created a foundation from which to draw from. ?We are leveraging off that whole development that has already happened,? she said.

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