NASA Astrophysics Division embraces cubesats and smallsats


SAN FRANCISCO – Early next year, NASA plans to select a maximum of three Astrophysics Pioneers missions, investigations with a maximum price tag of $20 million, Michel Garcia, NASA Astrophysics Division smallsats lead program scientist, said at the virtual American Geophysical Union fall meeting.

NASA created the Astrophysics Pioneers initiative “to do compelling astrophysics science in smaller form factors and at lower costs than traditional Explorers,” Garcia said at a NASA Astrophysics Advisory Committee meeting in March.

Pioneers supports investigations that would exceed the $10 million cost cap for the Astrophysics Research and Analysis program element of Research and Opportunities in Space grant program.

Pioneers missions can fly on cubesats larger than six units, cubesat constellations, small satellites, the International Space Station or balloons that remain in the atmosphere for a month or more. The $20 million cost cap for Pioneers missions does not include launch costs.

Principal investigators proposed 24 Pioneers missions in October to house advanced coronagraphs, ultra-stable clocks, polarimeters and radio interferometers. The proposed missions are destined for various orbits including Lagrange Point 2 and cis-lunar space.

NASA established the Pioneers program in 2020 partly to encourage researchers to take advantage of inexpensive satellite buses, advances in balloon technology and low-cost space transportation.

“This is an opportunity for us to strengthen our partnership with commercial providers,” Garcia said. He noted some commercial products that showed promise, adding, “This is not a complete list.”

For example, SpaceX plans to begin offering frequent rides for 200-kilogram class secondary payloads to sun synchronous orbit starting at $1 million. “That’s cheaper than what we’re doing now under the CubeSat Launch Initiative,” Garcia said.

In addition, York Space Systems’ S-Class three-axis-stabilized satellite advertised for $1.2 million “lets you do astronomy,” Garcia said.

Blue Canyon Technologies, which Raytheon Technologies announced plans to acquire in November, also “has a fine bus,” Garcia said. While it is more expensive than York Space Systems’ S-Class, it can accommodate “a half meter telescope,” he added.

The NASA Astrophysics Division has solicited cubesat proposals since 2012 through the Astrophysics Research and Analysis program element of Research and Opportunities in Space grant program.

The HaloSat mission, led by the University of Iowa to survey hot gas in the Milky Way and launched in 2018, was the first NASA Astrophysics cubesat.

“It’s still flying, producing great science,” Garcia said.

The second astrophysics cubesat, Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE), is scheduled to launch in 2021 on the Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite. CUTE is a six-unit cubesat designed to characterize the composition and mass-loss rates of exoplanet atmospheres.

The NASA Astrophysics Division plans to spend approximately $5 million per year for cubesat missions, Garcia said.