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Posted on December 18, 2013 by  & 

Solar sails to power CubeSats for space exploration

Two tiny, cube-shaped research satellites hitched a ride to Earth orbit to validate new hardware and software technologies for future NASA Earth-observing instruments.
The cube satellites, or "CubeSats," which typically have a volume of exactly 1 liter, were launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and developed with university and industry partners, these two CubeSats will help enable near-real-time processing capabilities relevant to future climate science measurements. Interplanetary CubeSats could enable small, low-cost missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). This class is defined by mass <~ 10 kg, cost < $30 M, and durations up to 5 years.
One of the CubeSats that launched was developed in collaboration with California Polytechnic State University and is called the Intelligent Payload Experiment, or IPEX. It enables imagery to be transmitted more rapidly from satellite missions back to Earth. By using new software and algorithms, the spacecraft can sift through the data, looking only for the most important images that the scientists urgently need on the ground. This method is designed to speed delivery time of critical data products from days to minutes.
The other CubeSat launched is the Michigan Multipurpose Mini-satellite/CubeSat On-board processing Validation Experiment, or M-Cubed/COVE. M-Cubed, developed in partnership with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will image Earth. The COVE payload will use these data to validate an instrument image data processing algorithm that will greatly reduce the science data transmission rate required for on-orbit operations.
NASA recently asked companies to help it design and manufacture solar sails to power the CubeSats. Solar sails are generally made of an extremely thin piece of metal—some many times thinner than a human hair—to generate thrust for a satellite. They are launched by a rocket, but once in space, the sail uses solar radiation to generate thrust. Theoretically, they can last much longer and are cheaper than any rocket-propulsion systems, making them ideal for deep space missions. NASA's George Marshall Space Flight Center recently put out a request for information to companies who can develop sails as large as 33 feet by 33 feet and that can fit into a 10 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm cube, while weighing just three pounds.
Originally developed by researchers at Stanford and California Polytechnic State University, CubeSats can be built for less than $50,000.
These technology validation missions are sponsored by NASA's Earth Science Technology Office. They are designed to satisfy their science objectives within six months, but will remain in Earth orbit for many years.
Source and top image: NASA
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