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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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.

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.

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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RELATED IDEAS

  • 1991 - NASA's Galileo was able to take close-up images of asteroids
  • 1994 - Discovered the first moon to orbit an asteroid
  • 2001 - Landed a spacecrafts successfully on Near-Earth Asteroid Eros
  • 2006 - Japan's Hayabusa was the first spacecraft to land on and take off from an asteroid
  • 2011 - NASA's Dawn mission was the first spacecraft to visit Vesta and Ceres
  • 2016 - NASA launched an explorer to the asteroid Bennu
  • 2017 - NASA's Discovery Program will launch two new projects: Lucy and Psyche

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Spitzer

The Spitzer Space Telescope observes the heavens through infrared light.

  • It takes stunning photos of galaxies, nebulae, and stars.
  • In 2005, Spitzer detected light from extrasolar planets.

Since 1960, dozens of spacecraft have been sent to Mars. It is difficult to send a spacecraft to Mars and even harder to land on the planet because of the thin atmosphere.

Data revealed the largest volcanoes in the solar system and one of the largest canyons yet discovered. Dust storms regularly sweep over the plains. Several spacecraft orbiting Mars shows an active planet rich in ingredients needed for life - water, organic carbon, and an energy source.

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