Lets start on the edge...
The outermost edge of our solar system, where over three billion miles from Earth our neighborhood seems vast from way out here and at the very center is our sun even the most massive object in our system looks like a tiny point of light from this far away.
But as we get closer our perspective on the scale of things begins to change...
In one nine hundred fifty seven the Soviet Union launched Sputnik one the first artificial satellite with the diameter of only fifty eight centimeters. It was tiny by today's standards but that tiny sphere started something very big for the human race.
In less than sixty years we have transitioned from a single tiny beach ball sized satellite to a sky filled with modern weather communications and navigation satellites some as big as a school bus.
Giant pieces of technology
These relatively giant pieces of technology can cost over a billion dollars to build and put into space the tremendous cost has made the job of space exploration the sole domain of a large governments. Until recently agencies around the world like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States have been almost entirely responsible for the human presence in space.
That is until a few curious scientists wondered if we could bring the spirit of Sputnik one into the modern age. Professor Bob twigs and Dr Jordi Suri created a unique challenge for their students incorporate the capabilities of the original Sputnik one satellite into an even more compact one liter microsatellite. This was the birth of CubeSat
for four years and we had a sat program. But in those days small it was like ten fifteen kilograms you know a bigger box and then I moved to Polly with a task to develop their astronautics program so at the point at that point I was really a lot more concerned about developing the right classes and the right before I got into actually building satellites. But Bob was able to grab me and say hey we're thinking about smaller things would you be interested. And they were small enough that I felt comfortable like yeah we could probably do something small and simple.
A small satellite
That small and simple satellite was the very first version of what would be known as a CubeSat the CubeSat standard is defined by a ten cubic centimeter frame with compact off the shelf electronics inside a CubeSats a low mass relatively spacious interior strength and flexibility all add up to an extremely affordable satellite.
Another major benefit of this standardized frame is that it is completely customizable by the builders. For example if you were doing an experiment that requires a gyroscope and an altimeter you simply install those cheap components and you have a satellite that is custom made for those tasks. Likewise if you instead require an infrared package and a temperature sensor you can easily replace the original parts with these new electronics,
The CubeSat project was purely developed as a way to get students to build very simple spacecraft and put them in orbit we had no idea that the pace of technology was going to keep going the way it did and shrink even more than we expected and then we again didn't expected the students to just grab it and throw it into their into their their satellites the way they did it so you know that was we knew we could do it but I mean something to be said for the fact that we thought you could put a little sputnik On a ten by ten cube that I agree we needed the technology to be small enough to do that but we have gone way beyond sputnik a long time ago
The first CubeSats
Following the first major CubeSat launch by Yurok in two thousand and three. A multitude of educational institutions and private developers began constructing CubeSats serviced by rocket launches from governmental and private entities alike this was great news for the CubeSat standard but brought to light the new issue of fitting into the established NASA launch parameters and schedules.
NASA needed to CubeSats to fit into a device known as a poly Pico satellite orbital deployer or p-pod. It’s Actually very interesting because what we have found we’re very intimidated by the traditional space players.
We were very concerned when NASA said OK let's go fly our NASA missions but you have to meet all our requirements on the p-pod out on the on the deployment system. We were terrified because we thought it was going to be a lot of work. We don't know if we're going to do it right you know we're going to get creamed by these guys and what we found is that the NASA guys were awesome.
They really wanted to do it and really wanted to help because they also see the benefits. As soon as they realized it was a better mousetrap in there somewhere they were very interested in helping us make it feasible for them to go fly as well. And now we have a lot of NASA missions on CubeSat size spacecraft because they can do it and the scientists want to do it.
NASA's CubeSat launch schedules
The opportunity to fly on NASA missions to gave a substantial boost to the acceptance of the CubeSat standard. However scientists launching CubeSats were constrained by the NASA launch schedules dedicated primarily to larger projects. This created an interesting challenge. How would scientists leverage the affordability and flexibility of CubeSats without having to rely on NASA’s launch schedule.
The answer just might be in the works at the Idaho National Laboratories. Centre for space nuclear research the C S N R is currently working on a radio isotopic based dual mode propulsion system specifically designed to launch CubeSats. The project is funded through a NASA innovative advanced concepts award and managed by the C.S. N R.S. director Dr Stephen how
We came up with a concept of a Mars hopper. Some years ago in 09 as part of our summer Fellows program we do a lot of this brainstorming in our C S N R center here we like to sit down and define what the problem is and then try to come up with maybe a new way of attacking it and the problem of course with no range in a rover is that you want to land on a very safe location.
So it's flat it looks like a tabletop or that's not where the interesting geology is it's over in the canyons in the mountains which are hundreds of miles away.
So you really want to be able to get from here to there. So that led to a Mars hopper that could hop seven miles every seven days for for many years and we could cover the whole Mars surface and that didn't catch on. That was a little too extravagant for NASA to get enthused about. And so then we started thinking well what other applications we really want to get away to go to. Like you said you're open and solid as affordably and with a number of different missions to see if we can find new life form on a totally foreign world
Reaching other worlds
With the unused Mars Hopper concept in hand and the dream of reaching other worlds in our solar system. Dr House team turned their attention to repurpose in the hopper design for a launching CubeSats one of the first proposed missions for the C.S.N. R CubeSat vehicle is a voyage to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter CubeSats may be uniquely qualified to explore certain aspects of these icy worlds. Nathan Jarrett is a research scientist at the C S N R. and is the principal investigator on the vehicle concept
in the planetary science community there's a lot of talk about life at these satellites for instance Europa that orbits Jupiter has a lot of talk about a possible liquid water base some sort of environment underneath the crust of the ice shelf. There's also some thoughts of similar discoveries that’s inside that as well.
There's some thought that these plumes might carry microorganisms that that could really lead to the first discovery of organisms on other planets and so we can try to look at discovering that microbe microorganism life on other planets and other satellites as well would be a really big discovery I think to the planetary science community.
Life on Europa
So it's quite possible that the mechanism that formed life on earth is forming life on Europa. But the chemical constituents will be different. However at the bottom of our ocean it's never seen the sunlight never seen the sunlight there. The fact that it's a liquid water temperatures are about the same pressures about the same. So conceivably you can make both arguments could be look like us might be totally different and answering just that one question may be the important part is would it looks like us.
A key component of the vehicle in development at the C. S. N. R. is its unique dual mode propulsion system it has the ability to utilize the radioisotope decay energy to either directly heat propellant which generates thrust or to generate high amounts of electricity for short time periods.
That electrical power can in turn be used for electric bass propulsion to provide power to other subsystems such as the communication system one of the C S N R researchers working on the technical challenges of this system is the University of Idaho Ph D. candidate Troy how
Computer assisted virtual environments
so this is the computer assisted virtual environment. Laboratory in the case building. What it does is it takes models and computer images that you make and it puts him to a three D. environment so that you can you can turn him you can go inside him you can manipulate him and see it from a visual perspective and learn about it whereas normally graphs or charts or equations might be a little bit more difficult.
So you can see in some of the visuals how it's much more clear when you're looking at a complete picture of your system than if you were just giving pieces of you're trying to imagine it yourself.
So you can do changes to certain aspects of it and then visualize how that how the result is formed in a comprehensive environment because the CubeSats can use solar power to power themselves they have to be relatively close to the sun and so distances farther from the sun like past Mars they have a definite lack of power right now for long term space missions like Voyager or Mars explorers they use a radio isotope power sources which are materials that decay over time like a plutonium or uranium and as they decay they generate heat.
And so that heat can be picked up and used as a power source and it works for a long time. So the plutonium has a half-life of around ninety years. So after ninety years it's half its power. If you had a system that was only designed to work for say thirty or forty years you still have a good quantity of power in that plutonium And so you can send out long term missions to explore and they'll still be able to generate power or as a common chemical battery would run out immediately. Solar power can only be close to the sun.
There's a lot limitations on other power sources but the radio isotopes can provide it for such a long period of time and they're not tethered to the sun or anything they can solve most of this problem.
The propulsion system. currently in development by the C S N R. Utilizes a method of gravitational escape called Perry abscess pumping. Essentially the system fires its booster mechanism at the perigee of its orbit. Its closest point to Earth. This creates an elliptical orbit that widens with every thrust at the orbit’s perigee until the final thrust from the system can be imparted to achieve escape from the Earth's orbit. By leveraging the force of Earth's gravity This technique allows CubeSats to slingshot out of the planet's orbit with minimal energy expenditure from the propulsion system.
The C S N R is on the cusp of redefining mission opportunites for small satellites. Their vehicle is poised to allow these instruments to reach out beyond low Earth orbit and into our solar system for the first time. Like its cargo this new class of vehicle will require the ingenuity and talent from the coming generations of scientists engineers mathematicians and designers to prosper. Today's students will be at the forefront of this new era of space exploration.
I think it's a great way of getting kids excited everybody says you know until fifth grade or sixth grade is dinosaurs and space. And both of those things are kind of pretty far apart. You know dinosaurs are a few million years behind us and it's hard to bring them back. And space is a hundred miles up and it's very hard to get there or at least it was.
CubeSats as an educational tool
I think we're seeing a lot more interest of educators connecting with CubeSat as a way to to teach the students but also to give them something to look forward to what I have found we have high schools come visit us you know I talk with my kids' friends we go lose I'll read you it's very interesting when you can get an eighteen year old or a twenty year old that was in high school just a few years ago that really can connect with those guys and goes and tells them my spacecraft is in Iraq. It's going to launch tomorrow that really connects with the kids because it's like oh my God I could be that person.
One of the great benefits of these small fuel cell forms is the recent push at universities to build them and send them into space. Well there's recently been a lot of work even high school students in high schools in technology classes that are building these CubeSats in there and are winning the opportunity to actually release them into low earth orbit.
So instead of looking at a lab book and just going through a very linear lab experiment This allows you to build something tangible that will actually have an application and geared towards a certain scientific experiment either in low earth orbit or if we can pair to a propulsion system to other celestial bodies.
Inventing new technology
The thing that I find most interesting about engineering and science profession is that I can invent and innovate new things. So I'm confronted with a problem that needs to be solved powering a satellite in deep space or finding a propulsion system to get your payload to where it needs to go and you have the ability to think up new ideas and use what you've learned to invent new technology you have the ability to take all of this new technology and use it to achieve a goal. I think that it's really liberating to be able to use all of these ideas that you might have to actually solve the problem.
Just one thing it is fun and that's something that sometimes we forget we're all talking about the technical stuff and you know the engineering and the science and the process season the testing and building these things. But one thing that people forget sometimes is that it's a lot of fun.
It's a team effort and it's intense and the kids are really passionate. And I'm really passionate and everybody's having a ball and then if everything goes well you know a year or two into it you hear a beep and it totally makes your day. Sometimes you forget that it’s supposed to be fun and it is and it's very exciting.