One of the Most Exciting Parts of InSight is Actually the Tiny Cubesats Tagging Along for the Ride and Their Role in the Mission

Yesterday, NASA’s Mars InSight lander successfully touched down on the Martian surface after spending seven long months in space. Over the course of the next few hours, the lander began the surface operations phase of its mission, which involved deploying its solar arrays. The lander also managed to take some pictures of the surface, which showed the region where it will be studying Mars’ interior for the next two years.

In the midst of all that, another major accomplishment received only passing attention. This was the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission, an experiment conducted by NASA to see if two experimental CubeSats could survive the trip to deep space. Not only did these satellites survive the journey, they managed to relay communications from the lander and even took some pictures of their own.

Continue reading “One of the Most Exciting Parts of InSight is Actually the Tiny Cubesats Tagging Along for the Ride and Their Role in the Mission”

A Japanese Company is About to Test a Tiny Space Elevator… in Space

Let’s be honest, launching things into space with rockets is a pretty inefficient way to do things. Not only are rockets expensive to build, they also need a ton of fuel in order to achieve escape velocity. And while the costs of individual launches are being reduced thanks to concepts like reusable rockets and space planes, a more permanent solution could be to build a Space Elevator.

And while such a project of mega-engineering is simply not feasible right now, there are many scientists and companies around the world that are dedicated to making a space elevator a reality within our lifetimes. For example, a team of Japanese engineers from Shizuoka University‘s Faculty of Engineering recently created a scale model of a space elevator that they will be launching into space tomorrow (on September 11th).

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Spinning Heat Shield Concept Could Provide a Lightweight Way to Survive Atmospheric Re-entry

One of the more challenging aspects of space exploration and spacecraft design is planning for re-entry. Even in the case of thinly-atmosphered planets like Mars, entering a planet’s atmosphere is known to cause a great deal of heat and friction. For this reason, spacecraft have always been equipped with heat shields to absorb this energy and ensure that the spacecraft do not crash or burn up during re-entry.

Unfortunately, current spacecraft must rely on huge inflatable or mechanically deployed shields, which are often heavy and complicated to use. To address this, a PhD student from the University of Manchester has developed a prototype for a heat shield that would rely on centrifugal forces to stiffen flexible, lightweight materials. This prototype, which is the first of its kind, could reduce the cost of space travel and facilitate future missions to Mars.

The concept was proposed by Rui Wu, a PhD student from Manchester’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE). He was joined by Peter C.E. Roberts and Carl Driver – a Senior Lecturer in Spacecraft Engineering and a Lecturer at MACE, respectively – and Constantinos Soutis of The University of Manchester Aerospace Research Institute.

The CubeSat-sized prototype heat shield designed by the University of Manchester team. Credit: University of Manchester

To put it simply, planets with atmospheres allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down in preparation for landing. This process creates a tremendous amount of heat. In the case of Earth’s atmosphere, temperatures of 10,000 °C (18,000 °F) are generated and the air around the spacecraft can turn into plasma. For this reason, spacecraft require a front-end mounted heat shield that can tolerate extreme heat and is aerodynamic in shape.

When deploying to Mars, the circumstances are somewhat different, but the challenge remains the same. While the Martian atmosphere is less than 1% that of Earth’s – with an average surface pressure of 0.636 kPa compared to Earth’s 101.325 kPa – spacecraft still require heat shields to avoid burnup and carry heavy loads. Wu’s design potentially solves both of these issues.

The prototype’s design, which consists of a skirt-shaped shield designed to spin, seeks to create a heat shield that can accommodate the needs of current and future space missions. As Wu explained:

“Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage… Spacecraft for future missions must be larger and heavier than ever before, meaning that heat shields will become increasingly too large to manage.”

Wu and his colleagues described their concept in a recent study that appeared in the journal Arca Astronautica (titled “Flexible heat shields deployed by centrifugal force“). The design consists of an advanced, flexible material that has a high temperature tolerance and allows for easy-folding and storage aboard a spacecraft. The material becomes rigid as the shield applies centrifugal force, which is accomplished by rotating upon entry.

Wu and his team performing the drop test of their heat shield prototype. Credit: University of Manchester

So far, Wu and his team have conducted a drop test with the prototype from an altitude of 100 m (328 ft) using a balloon (the video of which is posted below). They also conducted a structural dynamic analysis that confirmed that the heat shield is capable of automatically engaging in a sufficient spin rate (6 revolutions per second) when deployed from altitudes of higher than 30 km (18.64 mi) – which coincides with the Earth’s stratosphere.

The team also conducted a thermal analysis that indicated that the heat shield could reduce front end temperatures by 100 K (100 °C; 212 °F) on a CubeSat-sized vehicle without the need for thermal insulation around the shield itself (unlike inflatable structures). The design is also self-regulating, meaning that it does not rely on additional machinery, reducing the weight of a spacecraft even further.

And unlike conventional designs, their prototype is scalable for use aboard smaller spacecraft like CubeSats. By being equipped with such a shield, CubeSats could be recovered after they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, effectively becoming reusable. This is all in keeping with current efforts to make space exploration and research cost-effective, in part through the development of reusable and retrievable parts. As Wu explained:

“More and more research is being conducted in space, but this is usually very expensive and the equipment has to share a ride with other vehicles. Since this prototype is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.”

When it comes time for heavier spacecraft to be deployed to Mars, which will likely involve crewed missions, it is entirely possible that the heat shields that ensure they make it safely to the surface are composed of lightweight, flexible materials that spin to become rigid. In the meantime, this design could enable lightweight and compact entry systems for smaller spacecraft, making CubeSat research that much more affordable.

Such is the nature of modern space exploration, which is all about cutting costs and making space more accessible. And be sure to check out this video from the team’s drop test as well, courtesy of Rui Wui and the MACE team:

Further Reading: University of Manchester, Acta Astronica

Look at This Adorable Pen-Sized Booster, Perfect for Tiny Satellites

When it comes to space exploration, the motto “keep it simple” isn’t always followed! For the most part, satellites, spacecraft, telescopes, and the many other technologies that allow humans to study and explore the Universe are the result of highly-technical and complex feats of engineering. But sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that offer the most innovative solutions.

This is especially true when it comes to the today’s space agencies, who are concerned with cutting costs and increasing accessibility to space. A good example is the Fenix propulsion system, a proposal created by Italian tech company D-Orbit. As part of the last year’s Space Exploration Masters, this pen-sized booster will allow CubeSats to maneuver and accomplish more in space.

The Space Exploration Masters, which the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated in 2017, seeks to encourage space-based innovation and provide opportunities for commercial development. As such, this annual competition has become central to the implementation of the ESA Space Exploration strategy. For their application last year, D-Orbit was jointly awarded the the ESA and Space Application Services prize.

The Fenix propulsion system, as it would be fitted to a CubeSat. Credit: D-Orbit

The thruster prototype itself measures only 10 cm long and 2 cm wide (~4 by 0.8 inches) and contain solid propellant that is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters are designed to be placed at each corner of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSat, or can be doubled up for added thrust. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space or add significantly to a CubeSat’s weight.

Currently, CubeSats are deployed directly into space, deorbit at the end of their missions, and have no means to change their orbits. But with this simple, chemical-propellant thruster, CubeSats could function for longer periods and would be able to take on more complicated missions. For instance, if they can maneuver in orbit, they will be able to study the Moon and asteroids from different angles.

In addition, boosters will allow CubeSats to deorbit themselves once they are finished their missions, thus reducing the threat of space debris. According to the latest report from the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), an estimated 19,894 bits of space junk were circling our planet by the end of 2017, with a combined mass of at least 8135 metric tons (8967 US tons). This problem is only expected to get worse.

In fact, it is estimated that the small satellite market will grow by $5.3 billion in the next decade (according to Space Works and Eurostat) and many private companies are looking to provide regular launch services to accommodate that growth. As such, a propulsion system that not only presents opportunities to do more with CubeSats, but in a way that will not add to problem of space debris, will be highly sought-after.

Artist’s impression of a series of CubeSats orbiting Earth. Credit: ESA/Medialab

In addition to the ESA and Space Application Services prize, D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility, which is located in the Columbus module aboard the International Space Station. This facility is the first European commercial research center to operate aboard the ISS, and the D-Orbit team will use to test the booster’s safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment.

This experiment, which will not involve firing the actual propulsion system, will help ensure that the booster can operate safe and effectively in space. Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, while the team relies on the ICE Cubes facility’s dedicated control center to provide them with remote viewing opportunities from the ground.

The Fenix boosters are set to launch for the ISS by the end of next year and, if successful, D-Orbit will likely secure permission to test their propulsion system in space. And if all goes well, future generations of CubeSats – which have already made Low Earth Orbit (LEO) accessible to private companies and research institutes – will be capable of performing far more tasks in orbit.

For this year’s Space Exploration Masters, the ESA is partnering with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to address health and food. For the main challenge, participants will be tasked with coming up with applications that promote nutritious food and food security, both on- and 0ff-planet. Among other challenges, this year’s SEM will also be looking for ideas that make missions more sustainable and new ways to use future spacecraft.

For more information on this year’s Space Exploration Masters, check out the ESA website page.

Further Reading: ESA

A Satellite With a Harpoon, Net and Drag Sail to Capture Space Junk is in Orbit and Will be Tested Soon

After almost seventy years of spaceflight, space debris has become a rather serious problem. This junk, which floats around in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), consists of the spent first rocket stages and non-functioning satellites and poses a major threat to long-term missions like the International Space Station and future space launches. And according to numbers released by the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), the problem is only getting worse.

In addition, space agencies and private aerospace companies hope to launch considerably more in the way of satellites and space habitats in the coming years. As such, NASA has begun experimenting with a revolutionary new idea for removing space debris. It is known as the RemoveDebris spacecraft, which recently deployed from the ISS to conduct a series of Active Debris Removal (ADR) technology demonstrations.

This satellite was assembled by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and the Surrey Space Center (at the University of Surrey in the UK) and contains experiments provided by multiple European aerospace companies. It measures roughly 1 meter (3 feet) on a side and weighs about 100 kg (220 lbs), making it the largest satellite deployed to the ISS to date.

The purpose of the RemoveDebris spacecraft is to demonstrate the effectiveness of debris nets and harpoons at capturing and removing space debris from orbit. As Sir Martin Sweeting, the Chief Executive of SSTL, said in a recent statement:

“SSTL’s expertise in designing and building low cost, small satellite missions has been fundamental to the success of RemoveDEBRIS, a landmark technology demonstrator for Active Debris Removal missions that will begin a new era of space junk clearance in Earth’s orbit.”

Aside from the Surrey Space Center and SSTL, the consortium behind the RemoveDebris spacecraft includes Airbus Defense and Space – the world’s second largest space company – Airbus Safran Launchers, Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS), CSEM, Inria, and Stellenbosch University. The spacecraft, according to the Surrey Space Center’s website, consists of the following:

“The mission will comprise of a main satellite platform (~100kg) that once in orbit will deploy two CubeSats as artificial debris targets to demonstrate some of the technologies (net capture, harpoon capture, vision-based navigation, dragsail de-orbitation). The project is co-funded by the European Commission and the project partners, and is led by the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), University of Surrey, UK.”

For the sake of the demonstration, the “mothership” will deploy two cubesates which will simulate two pieces of space junk. For the first experiment, one of the CubeSats  – designated DebrisSat 1 – will inflate its onboard balloon in order to simulate a larger piece of junk. The RemoveDebris spacecraft will then deploy its net to capture it, then guide it into the Earth’s atmosphere where the net will be released.

The second CubeSat, named DebrisSat 2, will be used to test the mothership’s tracking and ranging lasers, its algorithms, and its vision-based navigation technology. The third experiment, which will test the harpoon’s ability to capture orbiting space debris, is set to take place next March. For legal reasons, the harpoon will not be tested on an actual satellite, and will instead consist of the mothership extending an arm with a target on the end.

The harpoon will then be fired on a tether at 20 meters per second (45 mph) to tests it accuracy. After being launched to the station back on April 2nd, the satellite was deployed from the ISS’ Japanese Kibo lab module on June 20th by the stations’ Canadian robotic arm. As Guillermo Aglietti, the director of the Surrey Space Center, explained in an interview with SpaceFlight Now before the spacecraft was launched to the ISS:

“The net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to … going with a robotic arm, because if the debris is spinning very fast, and you try to capture it with a robotic arm, then clearly there is a problem. In addition, if you are to capture the debris with a robotic arm or a gripper, you need somewhere you can grab hold of your piece of debris without breaking off just a chunk of it.”

The net experiment is currently scheduled for September of 2018 while the second experiment is scheduled for October. When these experiments are complete, the mothership will deploy its dragsail to act as a braking mechanism. This expandable sail will experience collisions with air molecules in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, gradually reducing its orbit until it enters the denser layers of Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.

This sail will ensure that the spacecraft deorbits within eights weeks of its deployment, rather than the estimated two-and-half years it would take to happen naturally. In this respect, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will demonstrate that it is capable of tackling the problem of space debris while not adding to it.

In the end, the RemoveDebris spacecraft will test a number of key technologies designed to make orbital debris removal as simple and cost-effective as possible. If it proves effective, the ISS could be receiving multiple RemoveDebris spacecraft in the ftureu, which could then be deployed gradually to remove larger pieces of space debris that threaten the station and operational satellites.

Conor Brown is the external payloads manager of Nanoracks LLC, the company that developed the Kaber system aboard the Kibo lab module to accommodate the increasing number of MicroSats being deployed from the ISS. As he expressed in a recent statement:

“It’s wonderful to have helped facilitate this ground-breaking mission. RemoveDebris is demonstrating some extremely exciting active debris removal technologies that could have a major impact to how we manage space debris moving forward. This program is an excellent example of how small satellite capabilities have grown and how the space station can serve as a platform for missions of this scale. We’re all excited to see the results of the experiments and impact this project may have in the coming years.”

In addition to the RemoveDebris spacecraft, the ISS recently received a new tool for detecting space debris. This is known as the Space Debris Sensor (SDS), a calibrated impact sensor mounted on the exterior of the station to monitor impacts caused by small-scale space debris. Coupled with technologies designed to clean up space debris, improved monitoring will ensure that the commercialization (and perhaps even colonization) of LEO can begin.

Further Reading: Spaceflight Now, RemoveDEBRIS

Are You Ready For The NanoSWARM?

We’re accustomed to the ‘large craft’ approach to exploring our Solar System. Probes like the Voyagers, the Mariners, and the Pioneers have written their place in the history of space exploration. Missions like Cassini and Juno are carrying on that work. But advances in technology mean that Nanosats and Cubesats might write the next chapter in the exploration of our Solar System.

Nanosats and Cubesats are different than the probes of the past. They’re much smaller and cheaper, and they offer some flexibility in our approach to exploring the Solar System. A Nanosat is defined as a satellite with a mass between 1 and 10 kg. A CubeSat is made up of multiple cubes of roughly 10cm³ (10cm x 10cm x 11.35cm). Together, they hold the promise of rapidly expanding our understanding of the Solar System in a much more flexible way.

A cubesat structure, made by ClydeSpace, 1U in size. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat

NASA has been working on smaller satellites for a few years, and the work is starting to bear some serious fruit. A group of scientists at JPL predicts that by 2020 there will be 10 deep space CubeSats exploring our Solar System, and by 2030 there will be 100 of them. NASA, as usual, is developing NanoSat and CubeSat technologies, but so are private companies like Scotland’s Clyde Space.

Clyde Space from Clyde Space on Vimeo.


NASA has built 2 Interplanetary NanoSpacecraft Pathfinder In Relevant Environment (INSPIRE) CubeSats to be launched in 2017. They will demonstrate what NASA calls the “revolutionary capability of deep space CubeSats.” They’ll be placed in earth-escape orbit to show that they can withstand the rigors of space, and can operate, navigate, and communicate effectively.

Following in INSPIRE’s footsteps will be the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats. MarCO will demonstrate one of the most attractive aspects of CubeSats and NanoSats: their ability to hitch a ride with larger missions and to augment the capabilities of those missions.

In 2018, NASA plans to send a stationary lander to Mars, called Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). The MarCO CubeSats will be along for the ride, and will act as communications relays, though they aren’t needed for mission success. They will be the first CubeSats to be sent into deep space.

So what are some specific targets for this new class of small probes? The applications for NanoSats and CubeSats are abundant.

Other NanoSat and CubeSat Missions

NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission, planned for the 2020’s, will likely have CubeSats along for the ride as it scrutinizes Europa for conditions favorable for life. NASA has contracted 10 academic institutes to study CubeSats that would allow the mission to get closer to Europa’s frozen surface.

The ESA’s AIM asteroid probe will launch in 2020 to study a binary asteroid system called the Didymos system. AIM will consist of the main spacecraft, a small lander, and at least two CubeSats. The CubeSats will act as part of a deep space communications network.

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission is joined by two triple-unit CubeSats to observe the impact of the NASA-led Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) probe with the secondary Didymos asteroid, planned for late 2022. Image: ESA

The challenging environment of Venus is also another world where CubeSats and NanoSats can play a prominent role. Many missions make use of a gravity assist from Venus as they head to their main objective. The small size of NanoSats means that one or more of them could be released at Venus. The thick atmosphere at Venus gives us a chance to demonstrate aerocapture and to place NanoSats in orbit around our neighbor planet. These NanoSats could take study the Venusian atmosphere and send the results back to Earth.


But the proposed NanoSWARM might be the most effective demonstration of the power of NanoSats yet. The NanoSWARM mission would have a fleet of small satellites sent to the Moon with a specific set of objectives. Unlike other missions, where NanoSats and CubeSats would be part of a mission centered around larger payloads, NanoSWARM would be only small satellites.

NanoSWARM is a forward thinking mission that is so far only a concept. It would be a fleet of CubeSats orbiting the Moon and addressing questions around planetary magnetism, surface water on airless bodies, space weathering, and the physics of small-scale magnetospheres. NanoSWARM would target features on the Moon called “swirls“, which are high-albedo features correlated with strong magnetic fields and low surficial water. NanoSWARM CubeSats will make the first near-surface measurements of solar wind flux and magnetic fields at swirls.

This is an image of the Reiner Gamma lunar swirl from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credits: NASA LRO WAC science team

NanoSWARM would have a mission architecture referred to as “mother with many children.” The mother ship would release two sets of CubeSats. One set would be released with impact trajectories and would gather data on magnetism and proton fluxes right up until impact. A second set would orbit the Moon to measure neutron fluxes. NanoSWARM’s results would tell us a lot about the geophysics, volatile distribution, and plasma physics of other bodies, including terrestrial planets and asteroids.

Space enthusiasts know that the Voyager probes had less computing power than our mobile phones. It’s common knowledge that our electronics are getting smaller and smaller. We’re also getting better at all the other technologies necessary for CubeSats and NanoSats, like batteries, solar arrays, and electrospray thrusters. As this trend continues, expect nanosatellites and cubesats to play a larger and more prominent role in space exploration.

And get ready for the NanoSTORM.

NASA Approves First Commercial Airlock for Space Station Science and SmallSat Deployment

Artists concept of first commercially funded airlock on the space station being developed by NanoRacks that will launch on a commercial resupply mission in 2019. It will be installed on the station’s Tranquility module. Credits: NanoRacks

In a significant move towards further expansion of the International Space Station’s (ISS) burgeoning research and commercial space economy capabilities, NASA has approved the development of the first privately developed airlock and is targeting blastoff to the orbiting lab complex in two years.

Plans call for the commercial airlock to be launched on a commercial cargo vessel and installed on the U.S. segment of the ISS in 2019.

It enhances the US capability to place equipment and payloads outside and should triple the number of small satellites like CubeSats able to be deployed.

The privately funded commercial airlock is being developed by Nanoracks in partnership with Boeing, which is the prime contractor for the space station.

The airlock will be installed on an open port on the Tranquility module – that already is home to the seven windowed domed Cupola observation deck and the commercial BEAM expandable module built by Bigelow Aerospace.

“We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation,” said Sam Scimemi, director, ISS Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”

The airlock will launch aboard one of NASA’s commercial cargo suppliers in 2019. But the agency has not specified which contractor. The candidates include the SpaceX cargo Dragon, an enhanced ATK Cygnus or potentially the yet to fly SNC Dream Chaser.

Boeing will supply the airlock’s Passive Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) hardware to connect it to the Tranquility module.

Artists concept of first commercially funded airlock on the space station being developed by NanoRacks that will launch on a commercial resupply mission in 2019. It will be installed on the station’s Tranquility module. Credits: NanoRacks

The airlock will beef up the capability of transferring equipment, payloads and deployable satellites from inside the ISS to outside, significantly increasing the utilization of ISS, says Boeing.

“The International Space Station allows NASA to conduct cutting-edge research and technology demonstrations for the next giant leap in human exploration and supports an emerging space economy in low-Earth orbit. Deployment of CubeSats and other small satellite payloads from the orbiting laboratory by commercial customers and NASA has increased in recent years. To support demand, NASA has accepted a proposal from NanoRacks to develop the first commercially funded airlock on the space station,” says NASA.

“The installation of NanoRacks’ commercial airlock will help us keep up with demand,” said Boeing International Space Station program manager Mark Mulqueen. “This is a big step in facilitating commercial business on the ISS.”

Right now the US uses the airlock on the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) to place payloads on the stations exterior as well as for small satellite deployments. But the demand is outstripping the JEM’s availability.

The Nanoracks airlock will be larger and more robust to take up the slack.

NASA has stipulated that the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), NASA’s manager of the U.S. National Laboratory on the space station, will be responsible for coordinating all payload deployments from the commercial airlock – NASA and non NASA.

“We are entering a new chapter in the space station program where the private sector is taking on more responsibilities. We see this as only the beginning and are delighted to team with our friends at Boeing,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks.

The NanoRacks commercial airlock could potentially launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX cargo Dragon. This Up close view shows the SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels sitting atop a Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to the ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Fire In Orbit This Time… Again

Back in October, the Cygnus CRS OA-5 mission (aka. the Orbital Sciences CRS Flight 5) rendezvoused with the International Space Station. As part of Orbital ATK craft’s sixth Commercial Resupply mission to the ISS, the unmanned spacecraft spent the past month berthed with the station, delivering 2,268 kg (5,000 pounds) of cargo and experiments and taking on 1,120 kilograms (2,469 pounds) of trash.

As of this Monday, November 21st, the spacecraft – named the “S.S. Alan Poindexter” in honor of the deceased Space Shuttle commander who died in 2012 – separated from the station’s Unity Module, and will spend the next week performing standalone operations. These have included the much-anticipated Spacecraft Fire Experiment 2 (aka. Saffire-II), which is managed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

This experiment, which began just five hours after the shuttle detached from the station (and after it conducted an orbit-raising maneuver), involved the Cygnus controllers deliberately starting a fire inside the spacecraft’s pressurized cabin. The purpose of this was to investigate how fuel combustion works and fires grow in a microgravity environment.

The Spacecraft Fire Experiment (aka. Saffire) is an attempt by NASA scientists to see how fire behaves in microgravity environments. Credit: NASA
The Spacecraft Fire Experiment (aka. Saffire) is an attempt by NASA scientists to see how fire behaves in microgravity environments. Credit: NASA

How fire behaves in space is one of the least understood hazards facing crewed exploration. Until now, research has been limited, and for obvious reasons. Starting a controlled fire in a microgravity environment, especially when you don’t even know how it will behave, is an extremely risky venture. All previous tests that were carried out were severely restricted in size, and yielded very little information.

In contrast, the uncrewed portion of the Cygnus mission offers NASA scientists a rare opportunity to conduct a microgravity fire test aboard a spacecraft. Not only are they hoping to address how fires can ignite, but also how large they can grow in microgravity, how they may consume materials the spacecraft is built from, and eventually die.

As Jitendra Joshi, the technology integration lead for NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, said in an interview with Spaceflight Now, such tests are critical for developing fire countermeasures:

“One of the least understood risks in space is how fire propagates (and) starts. How do you control the fire? How do you detect the fire? All these things. You can’t call 911 like on Earth to come help you.”

In addition to being pressurized, the inside of the Cygnus spacecraft also contained samples of material that are commonly found aboard the ISS. NASA was also sure to include materials that would be included in future tests of the Orion capsule, since such tests are of extreme importance to their “Journey to Mars” and other long-range, long-duration missions.

This was the second experiment conducted as part of the Saffire program, which is managed by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, part of the Glenn Research Center. It follows on the heels of the highly successful Saffire-I experiment, which took place in July of 2016. In that experiment, samples of a cotton-fiberglass blend were ignited inside an enclosure aboard a Cygnus vehicle, which consisted of a flow duct and avionics bay.

The samples themselves measured 0.4 meter wide by 1 m long, and were ignited by a hot wire inside an enclosure measuring half a meter wide, 1 meter deep and 1.3 meter long. Prior to this experiment, the largest fire experiment that had ever been conducted in space was about the size of an index card.

The Saffire-II experiment (the second of three proposed fire tests) began just after 18:15 Eastern Time (23:15 UTC ) on November 21st, as the first of nine samples was ignited aboard the craft. This time around, the samples included a cotton-fiberglass blend, Nomex (a flame resistant material used commonly aboard spacecraft), and the same acrylic glass that is used for spacecraft windows.

The nine samples burned for a total of two hours before dying out, and yielded much useful information. As Gary Ruff, Saffire’s project manager, said in a previous NASA press release:

“A spacecraft fire is one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community. Saffire is all about gaining a better understanding of how fire behaves in space so NASA can develop better materials, technologies and procedures to reduce crew risk and increase space flight safety.”

The third and final experiment for the Spacecraft Fire Experiment series (Saffire-III) is scheduled to take place during the OA-7 mission, which is scheduled to take place in March of 2017. With all three experiments complete, NASA hopes to have accumulated enough data to help guide the selection and construction of future spacecraft, subsystems and instruments.

They also hope that these experiments will help mission planners come up with operational protocols designed to address fires during future crewed missions. These will be especially handy during missions where astronauts don’t have the option of exiting to a docked spacecraft and returning to Earth (as they do aboard the ISS).

The Cygnus craft is now moving on to deploy the four LEMUR CubeSats, which will happen on Friday, November 25th. These CubeSats are part of a growing community of satellites that provide global ship tracking and weather monitoring services.

Following this, Cygnus will remain in orbit for two more days before conducting two burns that will cause it to deorbit and burn up in out atmosphere – which will take place on Sunday, November 27th.

Further Reading: NASA Spaceflight, Spaceflight Now, NASA AES – Saffire

What are CubeSats?

One of the defining characteristics of the modern era of space exploration is the open nature of it. In the past, space was a frontier that was accessible only to two federal space agencies – NASA and the Soviet space program. But thanks to the emergence of new technologies and cost-cutting measures, the private sector is now capable of providing their own launch services.

In addition, academic institutions and small countries are now capable of building their own satellites for the purposes of conducting atmospheric research, making observations of Earth, and testing new space technologies. It’s what is known as the CubeSat, a miniaturized satellite that is allowing for cost-effective space research.

Structure and Design:

Also known as nanosatellites, CubeSats are built to standard dimensions of 10 x 10 x 11 cm (1 U) and are shaped like cubes (hence the name). They are scalable, coming in versions that measure 1U, 2Us, 3Us, or 6Us on a side, and typically weigh less than 1.33 kg (3 lbs) per U. CubSats of 3Us or more are the largest, being composed of three units stacked lengthwise with a cylinder encasing them all.

A cubesat structure, 1U in size. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat
A cubesat structure, 1U in size, without the outer skin. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Svobodat

In recent years larger CubeSat platforms have been proposed, which include a 12U model (20 x 20 x 30 cm or 24 x 24 x 36 cm), that would extend the capabilities of CubeSats beyond academic research and testing new technologies, incorporating more complex science and national defense goals.

The main reason for miniaturizing satellites is to reduce the cost of deployment, and because they can be deployed in the excess capacity of a launch vehicle. This reduces the risks associated with missions where additional cargo has to be piggybacked to the launcher, and also allows for cargo changes on short notice.

They can also be made using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics components, which makes them comparably easy to create. Since CubeSats missions are often made to very Low Earth Orbits (LEO), and experience atmospheric reentry after just days or weeks, radiation can largely be ignored and standard consumer-grade electronics may be used.

CubeSats are built from four specific types of aluminum alloy to ensure that they have the same coefficient of thermal expansion as the launch vehicle. The satellites are also coated with a protective oxide layer along any surface that comes into contact with the launch vehicle to prevent them from being cold welded into place by extreme stress.


CubeSats often carry multiple on-board computers for the sake of carrying out research, as well providing for attitude control, thrusters, and communications. Typically, other on-board computers are included to ensure that the main computer is not overburdened by multiple data streams, but all other on-board computers must be capable of interfacing with it.

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

Typically, a primary computer is responsible for delegating tasks to other computers – such as attitude control, calculations for orbital maneuvers, and scheduling tasks. Still, the primary computer may be used for payload-related tasks, like image processing, data analysis, and data compression.

Miniaturized components provide attitude control, usually consisting of reaction wheels, magnetorquers, thrusters, star trackers, Sun and Earth sensors, angular rate sensors, and GPS receivers and antennas. Many of these systems are often used in combination in order to compensate for shortcomings, and to provide levels of redundancy.

Sun and star sensors are used to provide directional pointing, while sensing the Earth and its horizon is essential for conducting Earth and atmospheric studies. Sun sensors are also useful in ensuring that the CubsSat is able to maximize its access to solar energy, which is the primary means of powering a CubeSat – where solar panels are incorporated into the satellites outer casing.

Meanwhile, propulsion can come in a number of forms, all of which involve miniaturized thrusters providing small amounts of specific impulse. Satellites are also subject to radiative heating from the Sun, Earth, and reflected sunlight, not to mention the heat generated by their components.

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)
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)

As such, CubeSat’s also come with insulation layers and heaters to ensure that their components do not exceed their temperature ranges, and that excess heat can be dissipated. Temperature sensors are often included to monitor for dangerous temperature increases or drops.

For communications, CubeSat’s can rely on antennae that work in the VHF, UHF, or L-, S-, C- and X-bands. These are mostly limited to 2W of power due to the CubeSat’s small size and limited capacity. They can be helical, dipole, or monodirection monopole antennas, though more sophisticated models are being developed.


CubeSats rely on many different methods of propulsion, which has in turn led to advancements in many technologies. The most common methods includes cold gas, chemical, electrical propulsion, and solar sails. A cold gas thruster relies on inert gas (like nitrogen) which is stored in a tank and released through a nozzle to generate thrust.

As propulsion methods go, it is the simplest and most useful system a CubeSat can use. It is also one of the safest too, since most cold gases are neither volatile nor corrosive. However, they have limited performance and cannot achieve high impulse maneuvers. Hence why they are generally used in attitude control systems, and not as main thrusters.

This prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster was tested at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and will be used by industry to develop high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-qualified system. Credits: NASA
Miniaturized ion engines are a method of choice for providing thrust control for CubeSats. Credits: NASA

Chemical propulsion systems rely on chemical reactions to produce high-pressure, high-temperature gas which is then directed through a nozzle to create thrust. They can be liquid, solid, or a hybrid, and usually come down to the combination of chemicals combined with a catalysts or an oxidizer. These thrusters are simple (and can therefore be miniaturized easily), have low power requirements, and are very reliable.

Electric propulsion relies on electrical energy to accelerate charged particles to high speeds – aka. Hall-effect thrusters, ion thrusters, pulsed plasma thrusters, etc. This method is beneficial since it combines high specific-impulse with high-efficiency, and the components can be easily miniaturized. A disadvantage is that they require additional power, which means either larger solar cells, larger batteries, and more complex power systems.

Solar sails are also used as a method for propulsion, which is beneficial because it requires no propellant. Solar sails can also be scaled to the CubSat’s own dimensions, and the satellite’s small mass results in the greater acceleration for a given solar sail’s area.

However, solar sails still need to be quite large compared to the satellite, which makes mechanical complexity an added source of potential failure. At this time, few CubeSats have employed a solar sail, but it remains an area of potential development since it is the only method that needs no propellant or involves hazardous materials.

The Planetary Society's LightSail-1 solar sailing spacecraft is scheduled to ride a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to orbit in 2016 with its parent satellite, Prox-1. Credit: Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society.
The Planetary Society’s LightSail-1 is one of the few concepts where a CubeSat relied on a solar sail. Credit: Josh Spradling/The Planetary Society.

Because the thrusters are miniaturized, they create several technical challenges and limitations. For instance, thrust vectoring (i.e. gimbals) is impossible with smaller thrusters. As such, vectoring must instead be achieved by using multiple nozzles to thrust asymmetrically or using actuated components to change the center of mass relative to the CubeSat’s geometry.


Beginning in 1999, California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University developed  the CubeSat specifications to help universities worldwide to perform space science and exploration. The term “CubeSat” was coined to denote nano-satellites that adhere to the standards described in the CubeSat design specifications.

These were laid out by aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, from the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics at Stanford University. It has since grown to become an international partnership of over 40 institutes that are developing nano-satellites containing scientific payloads.

Initially, despite their small size, academic institutions were limited in that they were forced to wait, sometimes years, for a launch opportunity. This was remedied to an extent by the development of the Poly-PicoSatellite Orbital Deployer (otherwise known as the P-POD), by California Polytechnic. P-PODs are mounted to a launch vehicle and carry CubeSats into orbit and deploy them once the proper signal is received from the launch vehicle.

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. The BisonSat is an Earth science mission that will demonstrate the acquisition of 100-meter or better resolution visible light imagery of Earth using passive magnetic stabilization from a CubeSat. The science data, 69-by-52 kilometer color images with a resolution of 43 meters per pixel, a few of which will be images of the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana, will be used primarily for engaging tribal college students and tribal communities in NASA’s mission. BisonSat is the first CubeSat designed, built, tested, and operated by tribal college students. Credits: Salish Kootenai College
The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credits: Salish Kootenai College

The purpose of this, according to JordiPuig-Suari, was “to reduce the satellite development time to the time frame of a college student’s career and leverage launch opportunities with a large number of satellites.” In short, P-PODs ensure that many CubeSats can be launched at any given time.

Several companies have built CubeSats, including large-satellite-maker Boeing. However, the majority of development comes from academia, with a mixed record of successfully orbited CubeSats and failed missions. Since their inception, CubeSats have been used for countless applications.

For example, they have been used to deploy Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to monitor marine vessels, deploy Earth remote sensors, to test the long term viability of space tethers, as well as conducting biological and radiological experiments.

Within the academic and scientific community, these results are shared and resources are made available by communicating directly with other developers and attending CubeSat workshops. In addition, the CubeSat program benefits private firms and governments by providing a low-cost way of flying payloads in space.

An artist's rendering of MarCO A and B during the descent of InSight. NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist’s rendering of MarCO A and B during the descent of InSight. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 2010, NASA created the “CubeSat Launch Initiative“, which aims to provide launch services for educational institutions and non-profit organizations so they can get their CubeSats into space. In 2015, NASA initiated its Cube Quest Challenge as part of their Centennial Challenges Programs.

With a prize purse of $5 million, this incentive-competition aimed to foster the creation of small satellites capable of operating beyond low Earth orbit – specifically in lunar orbit or deep space. At the end of the competition, up to three teams will be selected to launch their CubeSat design aboard the SLS-EM1 mission in 2018.

NASA’s InSight lander mission (scheduled to launch in 2018), will also include two CubeSats. These will conduct a flyby of Mars and provide additional relay communications to Earth during the lander’s entry and landing.

Designated Mars Cube One (MarCO), this experimental 6U-sized CubeSat will will be the first deep-space mission to rely on CubeSat technology. It will use a high-gain, flat-paneled X-band antenna to transmit data to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – which will then relay it to Earth.

Engineers for NASA's MarCO technology demonstration check out a full-scale mechanical mock-up of the small craft in development as part of NASA's next mission to Mars. Mechanical engineer Joel Steinkraus and systems engineer Farah Alibay are on the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA engineers Joel Steinkraus and Farah Alibay demonstrate a full-scale mechanical mock-up of a MarCo CubeSat. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Making space systems smaller and more affordable is one of the hallmarks of the era of renewed space exploration. It’s also one of the main reasons the NewSpace industry has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. And with greater levels of participation, we are seeing greater returns when it comes to research, development and exploration.

We have written many articles about CubeSat for Universe Today. Here’s Planetary Society to Launch Three Separate Solar Sails, First Interplanetary CubeSats to Launch on NASA’s 2016 InSight Mars Lander, Making CubeSats do Astronomy, What Can You Do With a Cubesat?, These Cubesats Could Use Plasma Thrusters to Leave Our Solar System.

If you’d like more info on the CubeSat, check out CubeSat’s official homepage.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Space Shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.


The Photon Sieve Could Revolutionize Optics

Ever since astronomers first began using telescopes to get a better look at the heavens, they have struggled with a basic conundrum. In addition to magnification, telescopes also need to be able to resolve the small details of an object in order to help us get a better understanding of them. Doing this requires building larger and larger light-collecting mirrors, which requires instruments of greater size, cost and complexity.

However, scientists working at NASA Goddard’s Space Flight Center are working on an inexpensive alternative. Instead of relying on big and impractical large-aperture telescopes, they have proposed a device that could resolve tiny details while being a fraction of the size. It’s known as the photon sieve, and it is being specifically developed to study the Sun’s corona in the ultraviolet.

Basically, the photon sieve is a variation on the Fresnel zone plate, a form of optics that consist of tightly spaced sets of rings that alternate between the transparent and the opaque. Unlike telescopes which focus light through refraction or reflection, these plates cause light to diffract through transparent openings. On the other side, the light overlaps and is then focused onto a specific point – creating an image that can be recorded.

This image shows how the photon sieve brings red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, but produces exotic diffraction patterns when viewed from the side. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
Image showing the photon sieve bringing red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, and producing exotic diffraction patterns. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

The photon sieve operates on the same basic principles, but with a slightly more sophisticated twist. Instead of thin openings (i.e. Fresnel zones), the sieve consists of a circular silicon lens that is dotted with millions of tiny holes. Although such a device would be potentially useful at all wavelengths, the Goddard team is specifically developing the photon sieve to answer a 50-year-old question about the Sun.

Essentially, they hope to study the Sun’s corona to see what mechanism is heating it. For some time, scientists have known that the corona and other layers of the Sun’s atmosphere (the chromosphere, the transition region, and the heliosphere) are significantly hotter than its surface. Why this is has remained a mystery. But perhaps, not for much longer.

As Doug Rabin, the leader of the Goddard team, said in a NASA press release:

“This is already a success… For more than 50 years, the central unanswered question in solar coronal science has been to understand how energy transported from below is able to heat the corona. Current instruments have spatial resolutions about 100 times larger than the features that must be observed to understand this process.”

With support from Goddard’s Research and Development program, the team has already fabricated three sieves, all of which measure 7.62 cm (3 inches) in diameter. Each device contains a silicon wafer with 16 million holes, the sizes and locations of which were determined using a fabrication technique called photolithography – where light is used to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a surface.

Doug Rabin, Adrian Daw, John O’Neill, Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac, and Kevin Denis are developing an unconventional optic that could give scientists the resolution they need to see finer details of the physics powering the sun’s corona. Other team members include Joe Davila, Tom Widmyer, and Greg Woytko, who are not pictured. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
The Goddard team led by Doug Rabin (left) is working on a new optic device that will drastically reduce the size of telescopes. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

However, in the long-run, they hope to create a sieve that will measure 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter. With an instrument of this size, they believe they will be able to achieve up to 100 times better angular resolution in the ultraviolet than NASA’s high-resolution space telescope – the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This would be just enough to start getting some answers from the Sun’s corona.

In the meantime, the team plans to begin testing to see if the sieve can operate in space, a process which should take less than a year. This will include whether or not it can survive the intense g-forces of a space launch, as well as the extreme environment of space. Other plans include marrying the technology to a series of CubeSats so a two-spacecraft formation-flying mission could be mounted to study the Sun’s corona.

In addition to shedding light on the mysteries of the Sun, a successful photon sieve could revolution optics as we know it. Rather than being forced to send massive and expensive apparatus’ into space (like the Hubble Space Telescope or the James Webb Telescope), astronomers could get all the high-resolution images they need from devices small enough to stick aboard a satellite measuring no more than a few square meters.

This would open up new venues for space research, allowing private companies and research institutions the ability to take detailed photos of distant stars, planets, and other celestial objects. It would also constitute another crucial step towards making space exploration affordable and accessible.

Further Reading: NASA