New NASA Programs To Foster Small-satellite Breakthroughs

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WASHINGTON — NASA expects to inaugurate two programs this fall aimed at fostering technological breakthroughs for civil and commercial small-satellite missions.

A draft solicitation due out Oct. 1 will seek proposals for new small-satellite subsystems and flight demonstrations.

Brant Sponberg, NASA’s acting program executive for small spacecraft here, said the agency hopes to hasten development of small-satellite subsystems and flight-test them under the two new programs, named after inventors Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

“Small sats offer an efficient means of doing technology validation,” Sponberg said in a July 22 interview. “But also small satellites, in and of themselves, are … a potentially game-changing technology.”

Small satellites could allow the agency to take big risks on new applications with a potentially high payoff in biological and physical research, in-space servicing and orbital debris and planetary research and resources — at low cost and on a rapid timetable, Sponberg said.

Funded through NASA’s new Office of the Chief Technologist, the Franklin Small Satellite Subsystem Technology Program aims to seed development of new small satellite components that could enable game-changing capabilities for the government and commercial sectors.

“When you start with small spacecraft, you can think about doing some radical things in spacecraft evolution,” Sponberg said.

Between two and eight competitive awards valued at $1 million to $3 million per year would be made annually under the Franklin program to teams comprised of government, academia and industry.

From there, the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Mission Program would serve as a flight validation arena for subsystems developed in the Franklin Program, or other proposals within the agency and outside of it, Sponberg said.

Sponberg said NASA intends to collaborate with academia, industry and other federal agencies developing small-satellite capabilites, including the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

“There might be something that ORS has done and we can take that, turn it around and apply it in a different way, and do something interesting with it for a civil or commercial mission,” he said.

Total project cost for Edison demonstrations would run between $1 million and $10 million, with annual competitions leading to at least one or two competitively selected awards.

Sponberg said some of the demonstration missions could also incorporate scientific investigations or provide missions of opportunity for peer-reviewed science and exploration mission payloads.

Sponberg said a technology assessment panel comprised of nonproposers drawn from NASA, the Defense Department, industry and academia would shape requirements for both programs and evaluate the capabilities they produce.

“They’ll help us inform the [Broad Agency Announcement] at the front end and on the back end serve as the peer-review panel,” he said, referring to NASA’s intent to release a draft solicitation for the new programs Oct. 1. As recently as mid-July, NASA had hoped to issue the draft solicitation Aug. 9 during the 24th annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Under that schedule, the final solicitation would have been released Oct. 1.

In its 2011 budget request to Congress, NASA sought $6 million to begin the Franklin program next year, though the budget would grow to $30 million annually beginning in 2012. Edison would get $10 million in 2011 and $20 million annually thereafter. However, a spate of legislation moving through Congress trims funding levels for both.

Sponberg said the Franklin and Edison small-satellite initiatives will be managed jointly at NASA Ames Research Center, with the Office of the Chief Technologist overseeing the effort here.

Sponberg said NASA would launch Edison spacecraft as secondary or hosted payloads, though dedicated launch vehicles could be made available in the future under NASA’s Centennial Challenge program’s new Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge.