On 27 September, 2016, Thomas Zurbuchen was named the Associate Administrator for Science for NASA. A little more than a month later, on 31 October, Mr. Zurbuchen announced an initiative to incorporate highly innovative technologies, such as small satellites, into the agency’s portfolio of projects. “I’m really interested in figuring out how we diversify our portfolio of tools,” Mr. Zurbuchen said. “There’s a number of amazing opportunities that uses that kind of technology.”
What are small satellites and why are they important? Development of small satellites, also known as microsatellites and nanosatellites – or microsats and nanosats – began in the 1990s as the European Space Agency looked for economical ways to enter the arena of space technology.
Small satellites offer much lower costs for launching, as they are smaller, lighter, and less bulky than traditional satellites, and they can be deployed in constellations, providing a high throughput for data streams. The satellites can range in size from the size of your toaster to the size of your dishwasher. They can be built more quickly and cheaply than larger satellites, enabling not only fast deployment, but quicker innovation cycles, as researchers can take greater risks with these less expensive satellites. They can be deployed by piggybacking onto the payload of larger satellite launches.
Small satellites also open opportunities for managing big data and increasing Internet penetration, as well as providing better high-resolution earth imaging. The potential to integrate new markets into online models is drawing excited investors, who are betting on the future of data management, the Internet, and global marketing will depend on satellite constellations, much as parallel computing clusters have proved themselves to be the way of the future for big data usage.
NASA is scheduled to enter the small satellite community in December of 2016 with the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission. CYGNSS is comprised of eight small satellites in a constellation. The satellites will collect ocean surface wind data for hurricane and storm predictions, which is already handled by satellites, but can be improved by the agility of these small satellites, which will be able to take more frequent measurements and provide more data.
Another small satellite scheduled to be deployed in December is RAVAN, the Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes satellite, engineered to detect energy fluctuations at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. This data will provide insights on the effect of greenhouse gases on the earth’s climate. To give an idea of the scale of these satellites, RAVAN is known as a Cubesat, a cube-shaped satellite measuring only about 4 inches per side and weighing less than 3 pounds per unit.
NASA has a number of projects already underway. These existing projects account for most of the agency’s budget for the next few years. “What we’re going to do in the next three years we’re already working on, to 90 percent, roughly,” Zurbuchen said. However, identifying future technologies in which to invest is a positive move in ensuring NASA’s continued relevance as more commercial companies join the space-bound community.