Today, the cost of studying the atmosphere of a distant planet or moon is a multi-million dollar affair.  However, NASA is working on a way to make the exploration of space much more affordable by using cheap, lightweight crafts known as CubeSats.

The CubeSat is a spacecraft that is just 10cm by 10cm and has already been adopted by many citizen scientists, students and other researchers whose budgets are limited.  Even some of the most sophisticated CubeSat crafts that are equipped with suites of sensors and other communications technology usually only cost a few thousand dollars, and they can even fly through space loaded with everything from cameras to biology experiments.

There is a lot you can do with a CubeSat, assuming you want to do it low Earth orbit.  You see CubeSats usually don't have their own propulsion systems and launch vehicles currently have to drop them off between 160km and 2,000km above the Earth.  Once they arrive, these orbits begin to decay.

Jame Esper, a technologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, is looking to change that.  The idea is simple:  add a module with propulsion and attitude control systems that will allow the CubeSat to move around once it is deployed in space.  Next, add a shielding module to protect it from the heat of the planet's atmosphere and then you have what NASA is calling CAPE, or CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions.

Esper and his team want to launch CubeSat probes from spacecraft and then send them out into the Solar System to study the atmospheres of targets like Jupiter or even Saturn's moon Titan.  The cost of this would range in the thousands of dollars, instead of the millions of dollars it usually costs to build and launch an interplanetary probe. 

Researchers could even drop a small fleet of CubeSats into Jupiter's atmosphere to collect data from several locations.  The Micro-Reentry Capsule, or MIRCA, would shield the CubeSats as they plunged into the atmosphere, and their sensors would gather and send data back to Earth until the very last possible moment.

The CubeSats could also be used to reach far beyond our own Solar System.  By attaching small solar panels, or even a LightSail, the CubeSats could theoretically travel beyond our solar system to gather data about what lies beyond the reach of our little space neighborhood.  An interplanetary CubeSat could potentially use an ion propulsion drive like the one used for the Dawn probe and several companies are working on tiny propulsion methods as the interest in CubeSats has grown.

So far, Esper hasn't described the many potential systems being considered in great detail, but he said that he hopes to find partners to work with on the CAPE service module after his team tests the micro re-entry capsule in a high-altitude balloon drop this summer.