NASA advances CubeSat concept for planetary exploration

NASA is looking to explore other planets using loaf of bread-sized satellites.

Although scientists are increasingly using pint-size satellites sometimes no larger than a loaf of bread to gather data from low-Earth orbit, they have yet to apply the less-expensive small-satellite technology to observe physical phenomena far fromterra firma. That was until now at least, as NASA Goddard Space Flight Center technologist Jaime Esper is looking to give the highly-popular CubeSat concept that capability.


Dubbed the CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE), the concept involves the development of two modules: a service module that would propel the spacecraft to its celestial target and a separate planetary entry probe that could survive a rapid dive through the atmosphere of an extraterrestrial planet, all while reliably transmitting scientific and engineering data.

The CAPE spacecraft, including the service module and entry probe, will weigh less than 11 pounds and measure no more than four inches on a side. After being ejected from its ‘mothership,’ it will would spread its mini solar panels or run on internal battery power as it heads toward another planetary body. Upon reaching its destination, the service module will detach from the sensor-laden probe, where it will collect data like temperature and atmospheric pressure as it makes its way back to the mothership. This information will then be transmitted it to the ground station here on Earth.

“The CAPE concept is like no other CubeSat mission,” Esper explained. “It goes the extra step in delivering a complete spacecraft for carrying out scientific investigations. We are the only researchers working on a concept like this.”


CubeSats are small satellites, which are typically flown as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions. Since these projects are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy, especially when compared to traditional multi-million-dollar satellites, NASA can conceivably launch several CAPEs to monitor the various aspects of a planet. As of now, the agency has sent more than 30 CubeSats into space over the last several years, with a backlog of more than 50 awaiting rides in the near future.

Before any of this can happen though, Esper has to prove this concept works. He will accomplish this by equipping the Micro-Reentry Capsule (MIRCA) craft with accelerometers, gyros, thermal and pressure sensors and radiometers, which monitors specific gases, and test its stability by dropping a prototype comprised only of the entry module from a high-altitude balloon this summer in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

“If I can demonstrate the entry vehicle, I then could attract potential partners to provide the rest of the vehicle,” Esper adds. “The balloon drop of MIRCA will in itself mark the first time a CubeSat planetary entry capsule is flight tested, not only at Goddard, but anywhere else in the world. That, in turn, enables new opportunities in planetary exploration not available to date and represents a game-changing opportunity for Goddard.”

Want to learn more? Head over to its official page here.

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