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How small satellites are radically remaking space exploration

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/07/how-small-satellites-are-radically-remaking-space-exploration/?comments=1

arstechnica.com

How small satellites are radically remaking space exploration
"There’s so much of the Solar System that we have not explored."

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NASA - planetary science

NASA - planetary science

At the beginning of this year, NASA scientists had to decide which missions should explore our Solar System. They chose four missions for further study from the 20 intriguing ideas submitted. From these, they will pick two to fund fully.

This is how NASA has done planetary science for decades, and the process has succeeded phenomenally. Yet, there is so much more we can learn about the Solar System.

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Emerging technologies for space exploration

Two emerging technologies may propel NASA and the rest of the world into an era of faster, low-cost exploration that would lead to more exploration and democratise access to the Solar System.

  • A new generation of companies is developing new rockets for small satellites. Rocket Lab has a lunar program for its small Electron rocket, and Virgin Orbit with a group of Polish universities is to launch up to three missions to Mars with its LauncherOne vehicle.
  • At the same time, various components of satellites are being miniaturised.
  • Tiny satellites are no longer theoretical. Two years ago, a pair of CubeSats, called MarCO-A and MarCO-B, launched with the InSight mission. The briefcase-sized satellites deployed their own solar arrays and journeyed to Mars.

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Small sats in deep space

NASA had several goals with MarCO. The MarCOs proved that small satellites could thrive in deep space and stream data back home.

A few months after their mission ended, the European Space Agency announced that it would send two CubeSats on its "Hera" mission to a binary system.

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Spurred interest in small satellite missions

Interplanetary small satellite missions spurred interest in the emerging new space industry.

Polish scientists believe they can build a spacecraft with a mass of 50kg or less that can take high-quality images of Mars and its moon, Phobos. It might also be able to study the Martian Atmosphere. Access to low-cost launch was a key enabler of the idea.

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