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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory CubeSat program provides big satellite performance in a small package

Written by DC Agle
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA - National Aeronautics and Space AdministrationPasadena, CA – Any way you slice it, space exploration — done right — requires an inordinate range of technical expertise.

From designing the spacecraft, the mission proposal and the circuit boards to testing the flight software and putting together budgets, sending something, anything, into the cosmos depends on good people who know their job.

“Although significantly smaller in size, CubeSats contain analogous payloads and subsystems to larger satellites and require similar technical knowledge and resources to traditional flight projects,” said Shannon Statham, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The training and experience gained by working on CubeSats are directly applicable to larger missions.”

Team RACE: Fifteen JPL Early Career Hires (recently graduated engineers and scientists) worked closely together to get the Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment (RACE) ready for flight. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Team RACE: Fifteen JPL Early Career Hires (recently graduated engineers and scientists) worked closely together to get the Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment (RACE) ready for flight. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Only three years after receiving her graduate degree in engineering, and having logged time in JPL’s Environmental Test Lab, Statham was chosen to become the project manager for NASA’s Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment (RACE) mission. The position quickly provided the Georgia Institute of Technology grad all the hands-on experience she could have hoped for — and more.

“The core team for RACE was comprised of 15 early career hires,” said Statham. “We each had our designated role, but we all wore many hats and contributed to all aspects of taking the mission from proposal, to design, to testing, to launch delivery. With a very ambitious project schedule and budget, it’s what we had to do to get the job done.”

RACE was a CubeSat, a small satellite no bigger than a loaf of bread, designed to test components of an Earth-observing radiometer that would be used in future missions by larger, more expensive satellites. RACE was designed to “hitch a ride” aboard a rocket that was already tasked with lofting a spacecraft to the International Space Station. Once at the station, RACE would be set free to orbit Earth as its own satellite, measuring the liquid water path and water vapor that is pertinent to the water cycle and Earth’s energy budget from 240 miles up.

“That is one of the beauties of CubeSats,” said Statham. “They are small and compact, so placing them in the available nooks and crannies of a rocket already set to carry another payload into space can be quite cost-effective.”

When compared to its larger satellite siblings, just about everything about CubeSats is diminutive. Even transporting them is low-key. While their bigger brethren usually require a specially-equipped, air-cushioned tractor trailer or perhaps a military cargo plane, RACE made its way from the lab into the world via an attaché-sized box that Statham herself placed in the overhead compartment above her airliner seat.

The RACE team had hoped to show their instrument’s performance could rival that of traditional big satellites, resulting in potential cost savings down the line. On the evening of October 28th, 2014, Statham and several other RACE early career hires watched as an Antares rocket carrying their satellite lifted off from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Moments into the flight, one of the rocket’s main engines failed, sending its space station-destined payload (including RACE) to a fiery end.

“The launch failure was a disappointment, but I think all of us know that’s a risk you take,” said Statham. “We saw all our hard work effectively go up in flames. But I think everyone on the team is taking this as a very positive experience in general, and we’re all moving on to new and exciting endeavors at JPL.”

Statham is sticking with CubeSats for the time being. She is working on a JPL concept to fly a space-based radar called “RaInCube.” Others on her team have gone on to other CubeSat projects, while still others are working on more traditional space missions or in one of the research labs at JPL.

And what of RACE itself? At the time of this writing, the 13.4-inch-long (34-centimeter) spacecraft has not been recovered. But the technology that Statham and her colleagues pushed from concept, to test bed, to launch pad, lives on. The lessons learned developing the radiometer, the instrument that was the heart of the RACE mission, are being applied to a new CubeSat proposal called Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems – Demonstrator (TEMPEST-D).

The next JPL CubeSat is scheduled to fly on January 29th of next year. Called GEO-CAPE ROIC In-Flight Performance Experiment (GRIFEX), the CubeSat will hitch a ride aboard the Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. GRIFEX is a flight test of advanced technology required for future Earth observers measuring atmospheric composition from geostationary Earth orbit.

JPL has other CubeSat projects in development as well, including missions to the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids. JPL recently selected proposals from 10 universities to analyze CubeSat concepts that could enhance a proposed Europa Clipper mission. The concepts will be incorporated into a JPL study on how small probes could be carried as auxiliary payloads.

“These tiny spacecraft are great platforms for increasing the technology readiness of new technologies to buy down risk for larger missions in a relatively short time frame and minimal budget. They can also provide resources to larger missions with minimal impacts to cost and mass,” said Statham. “The future looks bright for CubeSats.”

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