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Steam-Powered Cubesats Dance in Space as One NASA Spacecraft Commands Its Twin

Using old-fashioned steam power, two cubesats executed the first coordinated maneuver in low-Earth orbit.

The propulsive movement happened after one of the twin spacecraft — with help from the ground — commanded the other to close the 5.5-mile (8.85-kilometer) gap separating the cubesats. Each spacecraft carries fuel tanks filled with water, which thrusters converted to steam to help the cubesats move closer together.

NASA says the maneuver shows the potential for small spacecraft to work together on future missions, even though for this initial demonstration, human operators made the call about when the satellites should move.

Related: CubeSats: Tiny, Versatile Spacecraft Explained (Infographic)

An artist's depiction of one satellite in the pair of cubesats that make up the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration mission. (Image credit: NASA)

"Demonstrations such as this will help advance technologies that will allow for greater and more extended use of small spacecraft in and beyond Earth-orbit," Roger Hunter, program manager of NASA's small spacecraft technology program, said in a statement

This steam-powered movement is part of the extended mission for the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration mission, which aims to demonstrate how spacecraft can maneuver in swarms and while operating in close quarters. In the distant future, such groups of spacecraft could be deployed into deep space and work autonomously to examine distant worlds or perform other science in the outer reaches of the solar system.

After more than 15 years of Earth-orbit operations, cubesats are starting to move across the solar system. NASA deployed the first Martian cubesats last year, to watch the landing of the InSight lander. And the agency is planning to send cubesats on Artemis 1, which will be an uncrewed mission of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft in 2020 or so to the moon

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.