Why Heliophysicists are Taking a Shine to Cubesats

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WASHINGTON — The chair of a National Academies panel tasked with producing a report on doing federally funded science with cubesats says the surge of interest in the tiny satellites has eclipsed expectations, and that heliophysicists are leading the charge.

The ad hoc National Academies Space Studies Board Committee on Achieving Science Goals with CubeSats, created earlier this year, will assess the state of the cubesat industry, identify NASA science priorities that might realistically be accomplished using such small satellites, and identify potentially fruitful cubesat technologies for NASA to invest in to bolster the platform’s power as a science tool.

The committee has met twice already, in June and September. The second time, in Irvine, California, the room the committee booked was too small to hold the whole meeting.

“We had 125 participants, and we did this on pretty short notice,” committee chairman Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor in the University of Michigan’s Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences department, told the National Academies’ Committee on Solar and Space Physics by phone during an Oct. 15 meeting here. “More people showed up and more posters were submitted than we expected, so we had to put posters on the porch outside. Thankfully, the weather was really good.”

The surge in interest among scientist mirrors a surge in popularity for cubesats in general. According to a chart Zurbuchen presented to Academy members, roughly 400 cubesats have launched since 2000, and almost 300 of those have lifted off in the last three years.

Universities, where cubesats first became popular, still account for most of those, Zurbuchen said. Commercial launches have spiked recently, mostly because of Planet Labs of San Francisco, which started launching its Earth-imaging Dove cubesats in 2013.

Even military cubesat launches have risen steeply in the past two years, according to Zurbuchen’s chart.

Civilian agency launches, on the other hand, are an outlier, growing along with the rest of the pack but plodding by comparison.

Among U.S. civilian agencies, the National Science Foundation has taken the most organized approach to cubesats, focusing on space weather experiments as part of a modest program on which NSF spent only about $15.5 million over seven years, Therese Moretto Jorgensen, manager of NSF’s cubesat program, told the National Academies when the cubesat committee met in June.

NASA, on the other hand, has taken a scattershot approach, dabbling not only in one-off cubesat missions, but cubesat-specific technology development, including propulsion and launch vehicles. The work is spread not only across the four main divisions of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, but the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Within NASA, the Heliophysics Division is leading the way when it comes to cubesats that yield useful scientific data, said Zurbuchen — who is himself a solar physicist.

That is partly because the latest Heliophysics decadal, a 10-year science roadmap published in 2012 by the National Academies and informed by the science community, is much newer than those for the other three NASA science divisions.

New enough, Zurbuchen said, that it is the only one that specifically mentions cubesats as a possible solution for certain high-priority science missions. In particular, the decadal urged the heliophysics community to consider whether proposed multi-spacecraft missions, such as the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, might best be done with cubesats.

The latest planetary science decadal was published in 2011, the latest astrophysics decadal in 2010, and the latest Earth science decadal in 2007.

“You go back when some of these [decadal surveys] were done … these cubesats and small platforms weren’t really available there, except for some fanatics,” said Zurbuchen. “The kind of more mainstream availability just really wasn’t there.”

While NASA has yet to fold cubesats into any decadal-priority heliophysics missions, the division has taken an important baby step by using space weather data collected by the NSF-funded Colorado Student Space Weather Experiment cubesat — which began and ended its brief mission in 2012 — to double check data gathered by a heliophysics balloon experiment called Barrel 1C, Robyn Millan, Dartmouth Collecte associate professor of physics and astronomy, told Academy members Oct. 15.

The ad hoc cubesat committee has three more meetings left on its docket: a science-focused meeting Oct. 22-23 at the Keck Center in Washington, a policy-focused meeting Oct. 30, also at the Keck Center, and an invitation-only workshop in Bern, Switzerland, to be hosted Jan. 16-17 by the International Space Science Institute. The latter meeting, which is not financed or run by the National Academies, will focus on gathering input from international space users and scientists, Zurbuchen said.