A Tiny Satellite Revolution Is Afoot In Space

Short Wave


Okay Joe we're talking. cubesats where shall we start. Well let me start by introducing you to Hannah Goldberg. She's a systems engineer at a company that makes cube sets but in nineteen ninety nine. She was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Majoring in engineering. And she. She saw this flyer on a bus stop. That said want to build a satellite and so I joined a group that ended up making small satellite as part of a larger NASA program. Capanna says that This class that she took was a way for students to build a simple kind of satellite. Now this was pre cube set but clearly it would be valuable. We'll have young. Aerospace engineers have a chance to build something that was really intended to go into space and that hunger lead to something called the Cube set which was an idea idea from two engineers one at cal poly San Luis Obispo and the other at Stanford University to build this standardized platform for building space hardware. Okay Joe so. Let's get into this a little more. We've got this standardized platform now for cubesats. What makes cubesats cubes that well there's a manual and it just spells out all the details? I mean how big it'll be ten centimeters or four inches on aside at has to have this kind of screws of this kind of Wade has to have all kinds of specific things and then there are different form factors so it turns out at the Basic Cube. Said is called a one you but there's also a to you and at three U and six U is the one. That's the cereal box size. And what can you put inside Well a ham sandwich or no. You could put anything you like. But that's the brilliant part you can put any kind of scientific Communications technology kind of hardware in them. And you know these exactly GonNa fit and it's going to go into space that way. Okay so when I think of cubesats. They're like the legos of Satellite Adelaide. They're modular there customizable. They're small on smallest really key here because one of the things that makes the queue set program work is the people who build cube sense. Don't actually worry about how they're going to get into space. They hitch a ride with somebody else. WHO's already going into space? That's the real money saver because it's getting into spaces expensive all right. So how did the aerospace field respond to all these low-cost cubesats hitching a ride into space and embarking on this research. I think at first. They were kind of dismissive in the beginning. In the early days of cubesats they kind of had a bad reputation and more of the the classical aerospace. So people didn't think you could do much science or much much engineering benefit with them. So how'd cubes. That technology evolved to the point where it earned respect among scientists. Well there's an example of the technology that made made it possible probably in your pocket right now gum wrappers yes no actually gum purchase a great idea but no. I was thinking more of cell cellphone mobile phone. This is the evolution of the ability to miniature is electronics down to very small footprints. Very little wait and suddenly when when you had an impossibly small space to squeeze all your stuff into well it was possible now. So that's why people started paying attention to what you could put into a cube set. Gotcha Yeah I've I've read. There are hundreds of cubesats that have been launched over the years and I wanNA know about a few missions. That have caught your attention. Well we're really got me started on this story. Was the two thousand. Eighteen Cube set known as Marco. Actually Asari gone okay. You'll be a lot of fun in space ace Actually the word two of them. So you remember insight that was the mission. That's currently sitting on the surface of Mars. Well somebody had this idea that maybe they could could build cubesats that would act as really stations that would send signals back as insight was landing on Mars. It didn't have a strong enough Radio Antenna to send the single all the way back to Earth. So it send it back to these Marco satellites which sent it back to Earth and so for the first time ever there was real time telemetry ask has inside came the ground. It was all possible because this little tiny satellite was sent into deep space. So suddenly you're not just thinking about cubesats in Earth orbit you're thinking about cubes cubes heads in deep space. And so I think that's really cool very me. And when you say relaying Telemetry Marco was playing a role in telling people down on earth. What was happening on Mars with the insight mission? Is that what it is right inside saying. Hey I've just deployed my parachute or I've just got my Rye Retro Rockets on or I'm this far above the ground and all that information was coming back to Earth through Marco through this cube set very neat so the world of space exploration is clearly seeing these. cubesats keeps US useful yes a cube set can be very handy. It's a miniature spacecraft. That's actually the way we think about it. That was Barbara Cohen. She's a planetary scientist at NASA has Goddard Space Flight Center. She's part of a team. That's using one of these six you cubesats about the size of a cereal box that is for emission called lunar flashlight. I'm assuming this mission has something to do with the Moon. No it has to do with Luna Moth. No you're right. Is the moon lunar one. Yup that's true. Lunar flashlight is designed to look for exposed. Water Frost in the permanently shadowed regions of the moon so once lunar flashlight is in orbit around on the moon the spacecraft will shine a laser into those regions which are the South Pole of deep craters. That never see the sun so those are the places that that never see the sun so those are very very cold regions. They are as low as thirty five. Kelvin that's colder than the surface of Pluto. They want to know what what kind of stuff is down there. Maybe there's water or methane or mercury and they wanna know how it got. There and lunar flashlight is going to help. Tell them but to do. Its work once. It's deployed deployed. It actually has to adjust its orbit. Yeah how does something the size of a cereal box change orbit in space. Well again. This is the problem you have to news. Almost a third of the mass of this cube set for fuel so changing direction is the really expensive part of flying around in space in terms of weight because the fuel is very heavy. But there's one more cubes at mission. I want to tell you about. That has a really cool. Lightweight propulsion system called a solar sail. Deal oh I already loved the sound of this mission. Tell me about it okay instead. It tiffany Russell Lockett explain. This is actually her first coop set mission. She's an engineer. as-as Marshall Space Flight Center. A solar sail is a large thin-film reflective surface. Think of Like a sailboat route or a large kite but instead of using wind to propel itself is uses sunlight of. That's pretty brilliant. And that's how they're able to get the cube sat to change directions. I mean but how to sunlight propel cubes at well the Sun is always pushing out photons and that causes solar radiation pressure and that pressure is constantly constantly pushing against anything that happens to get in its way in this case. The lightweight material the solar sail and it acts like a sale. And that's how you get thrust and the sale by the way his square in shape and about each side of this sale is about the length of a school bus. And if you want to see a really amazing video go watch as this thing. They've they've unfurled at a couple of times and oh my goodness it's huge because it packs into this tiny little space and unfurled to this huge thing about the size of a tennis court actually more properly half a tennis court. This whole solar sail is packed inside. This cube sat amazing. And what's the mission for this. Solar sailed cubes. Well this one. What is going to head to a near Earth asteroid and take pictures and they want to learn more about this asteroid shape it size it how it rotates? What colored is what it's made of and to do that? We're planning on getting to within a kilometer of the asteroid for our closest Fly By and then we'll just keep going after that so this cube sat will fly off into the sunset on the power of the Sun. Well metaphorically I don't think we have sunsets in space. There's nothing I think for the sun to set over but I take your point. Joe Win. Are these missions likely to happen. Well that's an interesting question because the two last last ones I mentioned this lunar flashlight and the asteroid one are supposed to go on this project called artists one which is a rocket that's going to carry area capsule that's going to go around the moon and come back and that's been delayed and delayed and delayed so the cool thing. Is You get a free ride into space. If you're a cube set the bad thing thing is you've got to wait till your driver's ready to go

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