JPL Deploys a CubeSat for Astronomy

Tiny satellites called CubeSats have attracted a lot of
attention in recent years. Besides allowing researchers to test
new
technologies, their relative simplicity also offers
hands-on training to
early-career engineers.

A CubeSat recently deployed from the International Space
Station is a key example of their potential, experimenting with
CubeSats
applied to astronomy.

For the next few months, a technology demonstration called
ASTERIA (Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in
Astrophysics) will test
whether a CubeSat can perform precise
measurements of change in a star’s light.
This fluctuation is
useful for a number of commercial and astrophysics
applications, including the discovery and study of planets
outside of our solar
system, known as exoplanets.

ASTERIA was developed under the Phaeton Program at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Phaeton was
developed to provide early-career hires, under the guidance of
experienced mentors, with the challenges of a flight project.
ASTERIA is a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in Cambridge; MIT’s Sara Seager is principal
investigator on the project.

A New Space
Telescope Model

ASTERIA relies on precision photometry, a field that
measures
the flux, or intensity, of an object’s light. To be useful to
any
scientist, a space telescope has to correct for internal
sources of error while
making these measurements.

Engineers have learned to correct for “noise” in
much larger
space telescopes. If they were able to do the same for
CubeSats, it
could open an entirely new class of astronomy
tools.

“CubeSats offer a relatively inexpensive means to test
new
technologies,” said Amanda Donner of JPL, mission assurance
manager
for ASTERIA. “The modular design of CubeSats also
makes them customizable,
giving even a small group of
researchers and students access to space.”

She said it’s even possible for
constellations of these
CubeSats to work in concert, covering more of the
cosmos at
one time.

A Steady Astronomy Camera

Its small size requires ASTERIA to
have unique engineering
characteristics.

  • A steady astronomy camera will keep
    the telescope locked
    on a specific star for up to 20 minutes continuously as
    the
    spacecraft orbits Earth.
  • An active thermal control system will
    stabilize
    temperatures within the tiny telescope while in Earth’s shadow.
    This
    helps to minimize “noise” caused by shifting temperatures
    – essential
    when the measurement is trying to detect slight
    variations in the target star’s
    light.

Both technologies proved
challenging to miniaturize.

“One of the biggest
engineering challenges has been fitting
the pointing and thermal control
electronics into such a small
package,” said JPL’s Matthew Smith,
ASTERIA’s lead systems
engineer and mission manager. “Typically, those
components
alone are larger than our entire spacecraft. Now that we’ve
miniaturized the technology for ASTERIA, it can be applied to
other CubeSats or
small instruments.”

Though it’s only a technology
demonstration, ASTERIA might
point the way to future CubeSats useful to
astronomy.

That’s impressive, especially
considering it was effectively a
training project: many team members only
graduated from
college within the last five years, Donner said.

“We designed, built, tested
and delivered ASTERIA, and now
we’re flying it,” she said. “JPL takes
the training approach
of learning-by-doing seriously.”

Caltech in Pasadena, California,
manages JPL for NASA.

For more
information about ASTERIA, visit:

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/asteria.php

News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

2017-314

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