Making Cubesats do Astronomy

Will cubesats develop a new technological branch of astronomy? Goddard engineers are taking the necessary steps to make cubesat sized telescopes a reality. (Credit: NASA, UniverseToday/TRR)

One doesn’t take two cubesats and rub them together to make static electricity. Rather, you send them on a brief space voyage to low-earth orbit (LEO) and space them apart some distance and voilà, you have a telescope. That is the plan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers and also what has been imagined by several others.

Cubesats are one of the big crazes in the new space industry. But nearly all that have flown to-date are simple rudderless cubes taking photos when they are oriented correctly. The GSFC engineers are planning to give two cubes substantial control of their positions relative to each other and to the Universe surrounding them. With one holding a telescope and the other a disk to blot out the bright sun, their cubesat telescope will do what not even the Hubble Space Telescope is capable of and for far less money.

Semper (left), Calhoun, and Shah are advancing the technologies needed to create a virtual telescope that they plan to demonstrate on two CubeSats. (Image/Caption Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)
Semper (left), Calhoun, and Shah are advancing the technologies needed to create a virtual telescope that they plan to demonstrate on two CubeSats. (Image/Caption Credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)

The 1U, the 3U, the 9U – these are all cubesats of different sizes. They all have in common the unit size of 1. A 1U cubesat is 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters cubed. A cube of this size will hold one liter of water (about one quart) which is one kilogram by weight. Or replace that water with hydrazine and you have very close to 1 kilogram of mono-propellent rocket fuel which can take a cubestat places.

GSFC aerospace engineers, led by Neerav Shah, don’t want to go far, they just want to look at things far away using two cubesats. Their design will use one as a telescope – some optics and a good detector –and the other cubesat will stand off about 20 meters, as they plan, and function as a coronagraph. The coronagraph cubesat will function as a sun mask, an occulting disk to block out the bright rays from the surface of the Sun so that the cubesat telescope can look with high resolution at the corona and the edge of the Sun. To these engineers, the challenge is keeping the two cubesats accurately aligned and pointing at their target.

Only dedicated Sun observing space telescopes such as SDO, STEREO and SOHO are capable of blocking out the Sun, but their coronagraphs are limited. Separating the coronagraph farther from the optics markedly improves how closely one can look at the edge of a bright object. With the corongraph mask closer to the optics, more bright light will still reach the optics and detectors and flood out what you really want to see. The technology Shah and his colleagues develop can be a pathfinder for future space telescopes that will search for distant planets around other stars – also using a coronagraph to reveal the otherwise hidden planets.

The engineers have received a $8.6-million investment from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and are working in collaboration with the Maryland-based Emergent Space Technologies.

An example of a 3U cubesat - 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size  could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. (Credit: LLNL)
An example of a 3U cubesat – 3 1U cubes stacked. This cubesat size could function as the telescope of a two cubesat telescope system. It could be a simple 10 cm diameter optic system or use fancier folding optics to improve its resolving power. (Credit: LLNL)

The challenge of GSFC engineers is giving two small cubesats guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) as good as any standard spacecraft that has flown. They plan on using off-the-shelf technology and there are many small and even large companies developing and selling cubesat parts.

This is a sorting out period for the cubesat sector, if you will, of the new space industry. Sorting through the off-the-shelf components, the GSFC engineers led by Shah will pick the best in class. The parts they need are things like tiny sun sensors and star sensors, laser beams and tiny detectors of those beams, accelerometers, tiny gyroscopes or momentum wheels and also small propulsion systems. The cubesat industry is pretty close to having all these ready as standard issue. The question then is what do you do with tiny satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Telescopes for earth-observing are already making headway and scopes for astronomy are next. There are also plans to venture out to interplanetary space with tiny and capable cubesat space probes.

Whether one can sustain a profit for a company built on cubesats remains a big question. Right now those building cubesats to customer specs are making a profit and those making the tiny picks and shovels for cubesats are making profits. The little industry may be overbuilt which in economic parlance might be only natural. Many small startups will fail. However, for researchers at universities and research organizations like NASA, cubesats have staying power because they reduce cost by their low mass and size, and the low cost of the components to make them function. The GSFC effort will determine how quickly cubesats begin to do real work in the field of astronomy. Controlling attitude and adding propulsion is the next big thing in cubesat development.


NASA Press Release

Balloon launcher Zero2Infinity Sets Its Sights to the Stars

Zero2Infinity announced on October 15, their plans to begin micro-satellite launches to low-earth orbit by 2017. (Credit: OIIOO)

Clearly, the sky is not the limit for balloon launcher Zero2Infinity. Based in Barcelona, Spain, the company announced this week their plans to launch payloads to orbit using a balloon launch system. The Rockoon is a portmanteau, as Lewis Carroll would have said: the blend of the words rocket and balloon.

The launch system announced by the company is called Bloostar. The Rockoon system begins with a balloon launch to stratospheric altitudes followed by the igniting of a 3 stage rocket to achieve orbit. The Rockoon concept is not new. Dr. James Van Allen with support from the US Navy developed and launched the first Rockoons in 1949. Those were just sounding rockets, Bloostar will take payloads to low-earth orbit and potentially beyond.

The Zero2Infinity Bloostar launch vehicle. Three stages will use a set of liquid fuel engines clustered as concentric toroids. (Photo Credit: 0II00)
The Zero2Infinity Bloostar launch vehicle. Three stages will use a set of liquid fuel engines clustered as concentric toroids. (Photo Credit: 0II00)

The advantage of rocket launch from a balloon is that it takes the Earth’s atmosphere out as a factor in design and as a impediment to reaching orbit. The first phase of the Bloostar system takes out 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere by reaching an altitude of over 20 km (>65,000 feet). Aerodynamics is not a factor so the stages are built out rather than up. The stages of the Bloostar design are a set of concentric rings which are sequentially expended as it ascends to orbit.

Zero2Infinity is developing a liquid fuel engine that they emphasize is environmentally friendly. The first stage firing of Bloostar will last 160 seconds, reach 250 km of altitude and an inertial speed of 3.7 km/s. This is about half the velocity necessary for reach a stable low earth orbit. The second stage will fire for 230 seconds and achieve an altitude of 530 km with velocity of 5.4 km/s. The 3rd and final stage motor will fire at least twice with a coast period to achieve the final orbit. Zero2Infinity states that their Bloostar system will be capable of placing a 75kg (165 lbs) payload into a 600 km (372 mi) sun-synchronous orbit. In contrast, the International Space Station orbits at 420 km (260 mi) altitude.

The Bloostar launch phases. Zero2Infinity intends to de-orbit the final stage to minimize their contribution to the growing debris field in low-earth orbit. Their plans are to launch from a ship at sea. (Photo Credit: 0II00)
The Bloostar launch phases. Zero2Infinity intends to de-orbit the final stage to minimize their contribution to the growing debris field in low-earth orbit. Their plans are to launch from a ship at sea. (Photo Credit: 0II00)

For the developing cubesat space industry, a 75 kg payload to orbit is huge. A single cubesat 10x10x10 cm (1U) will typically weigh about 1 kg so Bloostar would be capable of launching literally a constellation of cubesats or in the other extreme, a single micro-satellite with potentially its own propulsion system to go beyond low-earth orbit.

The Rockoon concept is not unlike what Scaled Composites undertakes with a plane and rocket. Their Whiteknight planes lift the SpaceShips to 50,000 feet for takeoff whereas the Zero2Infinity balloon will loft Bloostar to 65,000 feet or higher. The increased altitude of the balloon launch reduces the atmospheric density to half of what it is at 50,000 feet and altogether about 8% of the density at sea level.

The act of building and launching a stratospheric balloon to 30 km (100,000 feet) altitude with >100 kg instrument payloads is a considerable accomplishment. This is just not the releasing of a balloon but involves plenty of logistics and telecommunications with instrumentation and also the returning of payloads safely to Earth. This is clearly half of what is necessary to reach orbit.

Bloostar is blazing new ground in Spain. The ground tests of their liquid fuel rocket engine are the first of its kinds in the country. Zero2Infinity began launching balloons in 2009. The founder and CEO, Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales is an aeronautical engineer educated in Spain with R&D experience involving ESA, MIT and Boeing. He has speerheaded organizations and activities in his native Spain. In 2002 he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, the paper “The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism”.


Zero2Infinity Press Release

Bloostar Launch Cycle


Tiny Satellites Could Hitchhike To Europa With Bigger NASA Mission Concept

Artist's conception of CubeSats near Europa (left) and Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL

When you’ve got a $2 billion mission concept to head to Europa, it’s likely a good idea to pack as much science on this mission as possible. That’s the thinking that NASA had as it invited 10 universities to send their ideas for CubeSats — tiny satellites — that would accompany the Europa Clipper mission to the Jupiter system.

Europa Clipper is only on the drawing board right now and not fully funded, and should not be confused with the lower-cost $1 billion Europa mission that NASA proposed earlier this year (also not fully funded). But however NASA gets there, the agency is hoping to learn if the moon could be a good spot for life.

Each university is being awarded up to $25,000 to develop their ideas further, and they will have until next summer to work on them. Investigations include searching the surface for future landing sites, or examining Europan properties such as gravity, its atmosphere, magnetic fields or radiation.

Two reddish spots (Thera and Thrace) stick out on this image of Europa taken by the Galileo orbit in the 1990s. NASA says they display "enigmatic terrain." Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Two reddish spots (Thera and Thrace) stick out on this image of Europa taken by the Galileo orbit in the 1990s. NASA says they display “enigmatic terrain.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“Using CubeSats for planetary exploration is just now becoming possible, so we want to explore how a future mission to Europa might take advantage of them,” said Barry Goldstein, pre-project manager for the Europa Clipper mission concept, in a press release.

If Europa Clipper flies, it would do at least 45 flybys at altitudes between 16 miles and 1,700 miles (25 kilometers and 2,700 kilometers.) Part of its expense comes from the long distance, and also from all the radiation shielding the spacecraft would need as it orbits immense Jupiter.

Science instruments are still being figured out, but some ideas include radar (to look under Europa’s crust), an infrared spectrometer (to see what is on the ice), a camera to image the surface and a spectrometer to look at the moon’s thin atmosphere.

While there are no Europa missions officially booked now, NASA does have an active spacecraft called Juno that will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016.

‘Time Capsule On Mars’ Team Hopes To Send a Spacecraft There With Your Messages

Mars, as photographed with the Mars Global Surveyor, is identified with the Roman god of war. Credit: NASA

It’s an ambitious goal: land three Cubesats on Mars sometime in the next few years for $25 million. And all this from a student-led team.

But the group, led by Duke University, is dutifully assembling sponsors and potential in-kind contributions from universities and companies to try to reach that goal. So far they have raised more than half a million dollars.

“We were thinking that something was missing,” said Emily Briere, the student team project lead who attends Duke University, explaining how it seemed few Mars missions were being done for the benefit of humanity in general.

“We want to get the whole world excited about space exploration, and why we go to space in the first place, which was to push forward mankind and to build new habitats,” she added. Prime among their objectives is to drive engagement in the kindergarten to Grade 12 audience by encouraging them to submit photos and videos to send to Mars.

Artist's conception of Mars, with asteroids nearby. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of Mars, with asteroids nearby. Credit: NASA

But that said, everyone can participate! The official launch of the project is today, and you can read more details about the crowdfunding campaign and how to get involved on the Time Capsule to Mars website. Contributions start at only a dollar, where you can send your picture to Mars. The spacecraft will be loaded with audio, video and text messages from Earth.

“Each satellite will contain a terabyte of data that will act as a digital ‘time capsule’ carrying messages, photos, audio clips and video contributed by tens of millions of people from all over the globe,” says the Time Capsule to Mars team. “The capsule will remain a vessel of captured moments of today’s human race on Earth in 2014, to be rediscovered by future colonists of the Red Planet.”

The team hopes to use ion electric propulsion to get their small spacecraft to the Red Planet. It would head to space itself on a secondary payload on a rocket. (Briere couldn’t disclose who they are talking to, but said ideally it would happen within the next two years.)

Some of the corporate sponsors including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Aerojet while students come from universities such as Stanford, Duke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rise of the PhoneSats

A Phonesat to scale. (Credit: NASA).

Satellites can now fit in the palm of your hand.

Known as Cubesats, several of these tiny but cost-effective payloads use off-the-shelf technology that you may currently carry in your pocket. In fact, engineers have put out a call for app designers to write programs for these tiny micro-satellites. Four of this new breed of satellites are part of the Antares A-One mission and another four are slated to launch tomorrow atop a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk along with the Bion M-1 payload.

Yesterday’s launch of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket was scrubbed with minutes to go due to the premature retraction of an umbilical. Current plans call for a 48 hour turnaround with a new launch window opening Friday night on April 19th at 5:00 PM EDT/ 21:00 UT.

Cubesats are nothing new. As technology becomes miniaturized, so have the satellites that they’re contained in. Cubesats have even been deployed from the International Space Station.

The primary goal of the Antares A-One mission is to deploy a test mass into low Earth Orbit that simulates the Cygnus spacecraft. If all goes well, Cygnus is set to make its first flight to the ISS this summer.

But also onboard are the three unique payloads; the PhoneSat-1a, 1b & 1c cubesats and the Dove 1 cubesat.

As the name implies, the PhoneSat series of satellites are each constructed around a Nexus Smartphone and operate using Google’s very own Android operating system. The mission serves as NASA’s test bed for the concept. The phone system will monitor the orientation of the satellites. The PhoneSats will also use their off-the-shelf built-in cameras to take pictures of the Earth from orbit.

A separate watchdog circuit will reboot the phones if necessary. The PhoneSats are expected to last about a week in orbit until their batteries die. One of the PhoneSats is equipped with solar panels to test rechargeable technology for the platform.

Two of the nano satellites are built around a Samsung Nexus S and the other around a HTC Nexus Smartphone. The satellites will also use the SD card for info storage plus the 3-axis magnetometer and accelerometer incorporated into the phones for measurements and orientation.

A PhoneSat 1.0 during a balloon test flight. (Credit: NASA).
A PhoneSat 1.0 during a balloon test flight. (Credit: NASA).

Dove-1 will test a similar technology. It is built around a low-cost bus using off-the-shelf components. Each of the three PhoneSats cost less than $3,500 dollars U.S. to build.

Amateur radio operators will also be able to monitor the satellites as well. The PhoneSats will transmit at 437.425 MHz. Information will also available to track them in real time on the web once they’re deployed.

The two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites are dubbed Graham and Bell and will transmit every 28 and 30 seconds, and the one PhoneSat 2.0 satellite is named Alexandre and will transmit every 25 seconds.

The PhoneSat 2.0 series will also employ magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. A future application of this could include use of a PhoneSat for a possible heliophysics mission.

Although the Antares A-One mission is aiming to place the Cygnus test mass and the Cubesats in an inclination of 51.6° degrees similar to the ISS, it will not be following the ISS in its orbit and won’t present a hazard to the station.

The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat team based out of the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field California is to “release early and often.” Missions like Antares A-One present a unique opportunity for the teams to get “piggyback payloads” into orbit. To this end, NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative (CSLI) issues periodic calls for teams across the nation to make proposals and build tiny satellites.

Basic dimensions of a cubesat are 10x10x14 centimetres (for comparison, a CD jewel case is about 14×12 cm) and must weigh less than 1.33 kilograms for 1U, 2U & 3U variants. Up to 14kg is allowed for 6U models. Cubesats are deployed from a Poly-Picosatellite Deployer, or P-Pod.

Another set of cubesats is also slated to launch tomorrow from Plesetsk. The primary payload of the mission is deployment of the Bion M-1 biological research satellite. Bion M-1 will carry an assortment of organisms including lizards, mice and snails for a one month mission to study the effects of a long duration spaceflight on micro-organisms.

The Bion M-1 mission will also deploy the AIST microsatellite built by students of Samara Aerospace University, & BeeSats 2 & 3 provided by the Technical University of Berlin. A twin of the Dove-1 satellite launching on Antares named Dove-2 is also onboard.

One of the micro-satellites named OSSI-1 is of particular interest to backyard satellite trackers. Part of the Open Source Satellite Initiative, OSSI-1 was developed by radio amateur and artist Hojun Song. In addition to a Morse Code beacon, OSSI-1 will also contain a 44 watt optical LED beacon that will periodically be visible to observers on Earth.

Another similar project, FITSAT-1, has been tracked and imaged by observers in recent months. Follow the AmSat-UK website for predictions and visibility prospects of OSSI-1 after launch and deployment. FITSAT-1 has been visible with binoculars only, but OSSI-1 may just be visible to the unaided eye during shadow passes while it’s operational.

It will be interesting to watch these “home-brewed” projects take to orbit. The price tag and the technology is definitely within reach of a sufficiently motivated basement tinker or student team with an idea. Hey, how about the world’s first free-flying “Amateur Space Telescope?” Just throwing that out there!


Surreal Photos: CubeSats Launched from the Space Station

Three small CubeSats are deployed from the International Space Station on October 4, 2012. Credit: NASA

Five tiny CubeSats were deployed from the International Space Station on Thursday and astronaut Chris Hadfield called the image above “surreal” on Twitter. And rightly so, as they look like a cross between Star Wars training droids and mini Borg Cubes from Star Trek. The Cubesats measure about 10 centimeters (4 inches) on a side and each will conduct a range of scientific missions, ranging from Earth observation and photography to technology demonstrations to sending LED pulses in Morse Code (which should be visible from Earth) to test out a potential type of optical communication system.

These are low-cost satellites that could be the wave of the future to enable students and smaller companies to send equipment into space. If you’re worried about these tiny sats creating more space junk, Hadfield assured that since they are very light and in such a low orbit, the Cubesat orbits will decay within a few months.

The Rubic-cube-sized Cubesats were deployed from the new Japanese Small Satellite Orbital Deployer that was brought to the space station in July by the Japanese HTV cargo carrier.

The Japanese FITSAT-1 will investigate the potential for new kinds of optical communication by transmitting text information to the ground via pulses of light set to Morse code. The message was originally intended to be seen just in Japan, but people around the world have asked for the satellite to communicate when it overflies them, said Takushi Tanaka, professor at The Fukuoka Institute of Technology.

Observers, ideally with binoculars, will be able to see flashes of light — green in the northern hemisphere, where people will see the “front” of the satellite, and red in the southern hemisphere, where the “back” will be visible.

The message it will send is “Hi this is Niwaka Japan.” Niwaka is the satellite’s nickname and reflects a play on words in the local dialect of southwestern Japan, according to an article on Discovery Space. To see the Morse Code message, the Cubesat will be near the ISS, so find out when you can see the ISS from NASA or Heaven’s Above. Find out more about the FITSAT at this website.

The other Cubesats include NASA’s TechEdSat which carries a ham radio transmitter and was developed by a group of student interns from San Jose State University (SJSU) in California with mentoring and support from staff at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“TechEdSat will evaluate plug-and-play technologies, like avionics designed by commercial providers, and will allow a group of very talented aerospace engineering students from San Jose State University to experience a spaceflight project from formulation through decommission of a small spacecraft,” said Ames Director S. Pete Worden.

The other Cubesats include RAIKO, which will do photography from space, We Wish, an infrared camera for environmental studies, and and the F-1 Vietnam Student CubeSat which has an on-board camera for Earth observation.

See more cool-looking images and video of the deployement below (all images credit the Expedition 32 crew from the ISS/NASA):