May 16, 2015 06:46 PM EDT
Students and scientists continue to pack increasingly innovative missions into tiny satellites known as CubeSats, but getting them to space proves both difficult and expensive. A NASA program based at Kennedy Space Center hopes to help introduce a new class of rockets designed specifically for very small satellites, or even bunches of them.
The satellites measure as little as four inches on one side and often can have multitudes of cubes stacked together, currently must hitch rides on large rockets carrying much bigger spacecraft and usually come with a price tag of around $100,000. The new program hopes to change that.
"That way they can go wherever they want to go, whenever they want to go," manager of the Launch Services Program, Amanda Mitskevich says. "They don't have to be attached to the primary (mission)."
The program plans to partner with multiple companies this year to launch demonstration missions with new rockets by 2018. The launches of satellites totally just 132 pounds into an orbit of 264 miles up aim to demonstration what the rockets can do with low-risk payloads, giving NASA and companies more confidence to fly even more sophisticated satellites on them.
"We see this emerging launch capability as something the world is going to need," Flight Projects Branch Chief in the Launch Services Program, Mark Wiese says. "We want to help push this market forward."
In the last several years, NASA has launched more than 30 CubeSats but currently has a backlog of more than 50 waiting to hitch rides over the next few years, according to Garrett Skrobot, a mission manager for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program at KSC. More affordable and frequent missions could convince NASA's Science Mission Directorate to consider splitting up future missions's into smaller spacecraft instead of combining them as they currently do.
"We're looking to be able to find more of a dedicated ride for some of these missions that are having more complex science," Skrobot says.
The Venture Class Launch Services initiative builds upon a program that in 2013 awarded a contract worth up to $2.1 million to Atlanta-based Generation Orbit, which plans to launch small rockets from an aircraft taking off from Cecil Spaceport near Jacksonville. The contract's planned launch next year of about 33 pounds of satellites was scrapped in favor of a new program and its increased payload weight, which according to NASA is a better fit for market trends.
CubeSats emerged in the late 90s as an inexpensive, university initiative and have since grown in popularity. The 91 CubeSats launched in 2013 was more than in the previous eight years combined. NASA recently announced its first interplanetary CubeSat, which will help track the agency's InSight lander during its descent through the Martian atmosphere with a scheduled launch next year.
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