NASA officials announced plans to explore space using swarms of tiny CubeSat explorers — each roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Several of these spacecraft can be launched aboard a single rocket, and the vehicles are lightweight to boot. Each of these factors significantly lowers the cost of getting into space.
CubeSat systems are already in use by private science organizations and students looking to send payloads into space as cheaply as possible. The vast majority of these devices are however sent to low-Earth orbit — where they stay until their orbits eventually decay and they get burned up in the atmosphere.
Now, researchers at NASA want to utilize this new technology to explore the atmosphere of other planets, using fleets of minuscule robotic explorers.
The CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE) concept envisions missions in which CubeSats are sent into space in pairs. One of these miniature craft would be responsible for propelling the pair to the target planet, while the second would dive into the atmosphere, transmitting data back to mission controllers.
After the entry probe of the CubeSat separates, the "mothership" would begin to serve as a relay center, receiving data from the probe and sending it to ground controllers on Earth. Thanks to the low cost of these tiny spacecraft, a swarm of CubeSats could be deployed to a single target at once, so as to gather data from several locations around a planetary body simultaneously — such as Mars or Saturn's largest moon, Titan.
The Micro-Reentry Capsule (MIRCA) design is scheduled to be tested this upcoming summer, utilizing a high-altitude weather balloon launched from Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The test vehicle for these CubeSats – designed to withstand entry into alien atmospheres – will be dropped from a height of 18.6 miles above the ground. It is expected to reach speeds up to Mach 1 as it plummets toward Earth.
The Lightsail spacecraft, designed and built by The Planetary Society, was launched into space on May 20. This CubeSat will test technology needed for future spacecraft driven by solar sails and powered solely by light from the sun.
The research team hopes to launch one of the CubeSat atmospheric entry craft from the International Space Station (ISS) at some point during 2016. Such a test would allow the team to discover how these craft react to dense atmospheres and heating.