Tag Archives: satellites

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.

Creating a machine to track activities in lower Earth orbit

SATELLITEN works by tracing the paths of satellites in real-time on a paper map.

Satellites are used for nearly all modern-day achievements, from communication and navigation systems to environmental monitoring and military purposes. Since the launch of the Sputnik 1 in 1957, more than 6,600 of them have gone into orbit, of which about 3,600 remain in space with only 1,000 or so still operational today. Yet, GPS accounts for just 24 of these active extraterrestrial objects. That’s why Berlin studio Quadrature has developed a custom-built machine that is capable of keeping tabs on the number of satellite flyovers and plotting them in real-time.


SATELLITEN works by tracing the satellite pathways on a paper map with pen, all within a 10 centimeter square area, as they fly overhead. By scribbling the journeys in ink until each capsule leaves the horizon will eventually result in an almost entirely blacked-out square, or as its creators call it, “a temporal window, showing the seemingly arbitrary but highly structured activities in lower Earth orbit.” The device uses its own position as a starting point and old atlases of the area as a benchmark for its drawings, while relying on a database maintained by the U.S. Air Force to track the lines of satellite activity.

“For a long time, maps and atlases used to be one of the only sources for geographical knowledge. Now the paths of the satellites start to form on top of the familiar neighborhoods, thus setting the normally invisible traffic in relation to our usual habitat. But as time passes the lines of the satellites will obliterate the well-known streets and cities, overwriting not only the information the map originally contained but as well the marks left by the preceding satellites,” the team shares.


In order to make this project possible, Quadrature used a number of stepper motors, motor drivers and sensors, which were driven by a combination of Arduino and Raspberry Pi.

Interested? Check out the project’s official page to learn more.

Arduino-based satellites for the homebrew masses

Arduino boards are used to power a wide range of electronic designs and DIY hobbyist creations including robots, desk lamps, environmental sensors, 3D printers and even satellites.

Indeed, the San Francisco-based Nanosatisfi is currently prepping two Arduino-powered satellites (ArduSat) for launch on an unmanned HII-B rocket, which Kickstarter backers have “rented” to snap pictures, broadcast a message or conduct experiments, including monitoring radioactivity levels generated by space phenomena such as sun storms and background activity.

According to Nanosatisfi CEO Peter Platzer, Arduino technology is key to the company’s philosophy.

“I’ve really wanted to use something that everyone across the world can use, that has wide appeal to everyday people,” Platzer recently told NPR. “There really was no alternative.”

To be sure, ArduSat is designed to give ordinary people – students, teachers, individuals and enterprises – the chance to carry out experiments by controlling over 25 different sensors integrated in the unit, (spectrometer, magnetometer, radiation, camera, gyroscope, accelerometer, temperature, etc.)

As noted above, the goal of the ArduSat project is to make space accessible to consumers, relatively cheaply.

Unsurprisingly, Atmel-powered Arduino boards are also widely used in the art world, with Alberto Gaitán, a Washington, D.C.-based artist, telling NPR  that Ardunio’s popularity is “growing, and growing fast.”

For example, an artist by the name of Joyce Yu-Jean Lee told NPR she wanted to use the Arduino in her next video art project.

“I’ve been wanting for a very long time – since graduate school – to work with sensors to make my videos interact with the viewers,” she explained. “I’ll have a solo show in the fall. I think I can get it down by then.”

And why not? As Arduino’s Massimo Banzi says, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make something great.