Microsatellites rise, future “poor countries” can probe Mars and Venus

Over the past few decades, the way humans have explored space has been time-consuming and costly. But the rise of satellite miniaturization is reshaping the space exploration industry. Earlier this year, NASA struggled with which robotic missions to explore the solar system.

Microsatellites rise, future "poor countries" can probe Mars and Venus

Pictured: Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket blasts off from New Zealand in August 2019.

Researchers from across the United States have come up with more than 20 ideas, such as detecting asteroids and Venus’ atmospheres, drilling for lava pipelines on the moon, and so on. In the end, NASA chose four of the discovery-level missions. A few months later, NASA selected two more full grants from four missions, each capped at $450 million, and will launch probes over the next decade. There may be more opportunities in the next few years for the idea of not being selected, but it will take a long time.

That’s how NASA has been exploring space for decades. Scientists first came up with various ideas for solar system exploration, and then NASA identified several key projects to fund it. The process usually takes decades, from the initial idea to the time it takes to bring the data back to Earth. This approach has been an amazing success. Over the past half century, NASA has explored most of the solar system’s largest objects, including the sun, Mercury, Pluto, and more. However, there are still too many secrets to learn about the solar system.

Now, emerging technologies could push NASA and the rest of the world into an era of shorter, lower-cost space exploration, which will spur more exploration in a short period of time and make it easier to enter the solar system.

In recent years, many start-ups have been developing new rockets for the launch of microsatellites at a cost of about $10 million per launch. Rocket Lab has announced plans for a moon landing for its small rocket, Electron. Virgin Orbit has partnered with several Polish universities to launch three missions to Mars using its LauncherOne launch vehicle.

At the same time, satellite components, from propulsion systems to batteries to carrying instruments, are miniaturized. Like mobile phones, today’s smartphones have more computing power than mainframe machines a few decades ago, and microsatellites are following the same basic trend.

In addition, the potential of microsatellites has been tested in practice. Two years ago, two CubeSats built by NASA and the InSight mission launched simultaneously. In space, the microsatellites have their own solar panels, stabilized their orbits, always rotating in the direction of the sun, and then headed to Mars.

“We’re in a very interesting time when people can get their space missions done faster and don’t have to spend decades moving,” said Elizabeth Frank, an app planetary scientist at Seattle-based technology company First Mode. This creates more opportunities, which are very exciting times in planetary science. “


Andy Klesh, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and head of microsatellite mission technology, said CubeSat has several targets. Since CubeSats have never flown into low-Earth orbit before, they proved during their six-month trip to Mars that microsatellites are indeed well suited to space exploration, control and, upon arrival, transmit data to Earth at 8 kilobits per second using high-gain antennas.

But the briefcase-sized CubeSat is more than just a technical demonstration. With the launch of the Mars Insight lander in 2018, NASA has suffered a disruption of communications at a critical time when it is about to enter the Martian atmosphere and land on the red planet. To narrow the communication distance, NASA spent $18.5 million to build two CubeSats, called Marco 6U, and use them to transmit back insight data during landing. If Insight fails to land, the two satellites will act as black box data recorders, Mr Klish said.

The successful launch of NASA’s CubeSat has changed the way people think about small satellites and planetary science. A few months after the mission ended, the European Space Agency announced that it would launch two Cube Sats to a two-star asteroid system for a so-called Hera mission. European engineers specifically mentioned that the success of NASA’s CubeSat mission inspired them and helped them make up their minds.

Microsatellites rise, future "poor countries" can probe Mars and Venus

FILE PHOTO: NASA’s Cube Planet took this image about 6,000 kilometers from Mars on November 26, 2018

The concept of interstellar satellite missions has also stimulated interest in the emerging space industry. Will Pomerantz, Virgin’s project director, said: ‘The mission caught our attention, we were very inspired and wanted to know what else we could do. “

After NASA’s Cube Planet mission ended, Virgin Orbit began receiving calls from the research team about LauncherOne, Pomeranz said. The LauncherOne is the company’s small rocket, which is carried to high altitude by the 747 and then starts the engine. How many payloads can this launch vehicle carry into lunar orbit? Can the company add a third level? Ideas for missions to Venus, asteroids and Mars are swarming.

Polish scientists believe they can build spacecraft of 50 kg or less (each cube planet weighs 13.5 kg) and take high-quality images of Mars and its moon Phobos. Such spacecraft could also be used to study the Martian atmosphere and even find a reservoir of liquid water beneath the surface of Mars. Low-cost launches are a key driver of this idea.

Without this new model of planetary exploration, Pomeeranz said, countries like Poland could only be involved as one of the few secondary partners in the Mars mission, and now it can explore on its own. “Even a not-so-large space exploration mission can make Poland famous, ” Pomeranz added. “

Small rocket

A few months before the CubeSat and Insight lander launched on an Atlas V rocket, the much smaller Electron rocket was launched for the first time, the first of its kind to enter orbit, a new generation of commercial small satellite launch vehicles developed by Rocket Lab and launched from New Zealand. The small booster has a near-Earth orbit payload capacity of approximately 200 kg. But since The Electron’s debut, Rocket Lab has developed an upgraded version of Photon.

Peter Beck, founder of Rocket Lab, said the company believed Photon could deliver 25 kilograms of payloads to Mars or Venus and up to 37 kilograms to the moon. Since Photon provides many capabilities for deep space vehicles, most of the quality can be used to carry sensors and scientific instruments. “What we’re saying is that you can go to the moon for just $15 million to $20 million,” Baker said. I think it’s a huge, disruptive plan for the scientific community. “

Of the destinations That Electron can reach, Baker is most interested in Venus. “I think it’s an unsung hero in our solar system, and we can learn a lot about Earth from Venus, ” he said. Mars has attracted all the media attention, but Venus deserves more attention, and we really want to complete the mission to explore Venus. “

Other, larger rockets are coming. Firefly’s Alpha booster can be launched into low-Earth orbit with a payload of nearly a ton, while Relativity Space is developing a Terran 1 rocket that can launch just over a ton of weight. These launch vehicles could send CubeSats beyond the asteroid belt to Jupiter or beyond.

Finally, SpaceX’s low-cost launch revolution with larger rockets could also help, with the company’s Falcon 9 rocket costing less than $60 million to launch in reusable mode and cheaply sending larger spacecraft into the depths of space. Historically, NASA has paid three times or more for scientific research launches.

Willing to fail

Of course, there are trade-offs. One reason nasa’s mission is so expensive is that the agency has taken a wide range of precautions to ensure that its craft does not fail in space. In the end, most of NASA’s very complex missions have been amazingly successful.

CubeSats are more risky and less redundant. But Pomeranz says it doesn’t matter. He cites NASA’s Curiosity mission, launched in 2011 at a cost of $2.5 billion, enough to send 100 tiny robots into the solar system. Even if only a quarter of the missions are effective, that means 25 mini-Curiosity launches.

Microsatellites rise, future "poor countries" can probe Mars and Venus

Picture: Would it be better to replace NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with 25 mini-Curiosity?

NASA, which seems open to the idea, has said it will learn to accept failure as it seeks to control costs and implement a new lunar science program with commercial partners. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s head of science programs, said he would tolerate some mistakes when NASA tried to land scientific experiments on the moon. “We don’t expect every launch and landing to succeed,” he said last year. “

Planetary scientists and engineers are also open-minded at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. John Baker, who leads “game-changing” technology development and missions in the lab, says no one wants to spend 20 years or more making mission ideas a reality, and the period is fraught with uncertainty. “Now, people want to design and print their structures, add instruments and avionics, refuel it and launch it immediately,” he said. This is our vision for the future. “

Of course, space flight is still fraught with challenges. Many technologies can be miniaturized, but propulsion and fuel remain challenges. However, willingness to fail brings many new possibilities. One of Baker’s favorite designs is the Cupid’s Arrow mission to Venus, where spacecraft like NASA’s Cube Planet are launched into Venus’ atmosphere and the airborne mass spectrometer analyzes atmospheric samples. This is a mission that can be launched as a secondary payload on a lunar mission and used gravity to reach Venus.

The most exciting aspect of reducing the cost of interstellar missions is that it increases the chances of new participants, with the participation of small countries such as Poland and universities around the world. “I think the best thing I can do is find a way to reduce costs and then make the technology public,” Baker said. As more and more countries participate in the exploration of the solar system, we will only learn more. “

Organizations such as the Milo Institute at Arizona State University have begun to promote collaboration between universities, emerging space agencies, private charities and small space companies. Historically, planetary scientists have had so few opportunities to participate in missions that it has been difficult for researchers to acquire the project management skills they need to lead large projects. Frank says she believes it will increase the diversity of the planetary science community as more small missions take place.

In turn, she added, it would help NASA and other large space agencies carry out larger, more challenging planetary science missions that still require billions of dollars and large rockets by nurturing and increasing the global pool of talent. While some things can be accomplished in a lower-cost way, truly ambitious planetary science missions, such as exploring the depths of the Ganymede ocean or orbiting Pluto, will still be costly.