NASA's new CubeSat concept for planetary exploration beyond low Earth orbit
Jaime Esper, a technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has developed a CubeSat concept that would allow scientists to use less-expensive cubesat (tiny-satellite) technology to observe physical phenomena beyond the current low-Earth-orbit limit.
The CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE) concept involves a service module that would propel the spacecraft to its target and a separate planetary entry probe that could survive a rapid dive through the atmosphere of an extraterrestrial planet, all while reliably transmitting scientific and engineering data.
Esper and his team are planning to test the stability of a prototype entry vehicle, the Micro-Reentry Capsule (MIRCA), this summer during a high-altitude balloon mission from Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
The CAPE/MIRCA spacecraft, including the service module and entry probe, would weigh less than 11 pounds (4.9 kilograms) and measure no more than 4 inches (10.1 centimeters) on a side. After being ejected from a canister housed by its mother ship, the tiny spacecraft would unfurl its miniaturized solar panels or operate on internal battery power to begin its journey to another planetary body.
Once it reached its destination, the sensor-loaded entry vehicle would separate from its service module and begin its descent through the target’s atmosphere. It would communicate atmospheric pressure, temperature, and composition data to the mother ship, which then would transmit the information back to Earth.
The beauty of CubeSats is their versatility. Because they are relatively inexpensive to build and deploy, scientists could conceivably launch multiple spacecraft for multi-point sampling, a capability currently not available with single planetary probes that are the NASA norm today.
Esper would equip the MIRCA craft with accelerometers, gyros, thermal and pressure sensors, and radiometers, which measure specific gases; however, scientists could tailor the instrument package depending on the targets, Esper said.