NASA CubeSats Heading into Orbit (Artist's Concept) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — A National Academies report recommends that NASA and the National Science Foundation make greater use of cubesats for science missions, while also centralizing the management of NASA’s diverse cubesat efforts.

The report, prepared by a committee under the auspices of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and released May 23, argued that cubesats represent a “disruptive innovation” whose capabilities continue to grow while remaining faster to develop and less expensive than more conventional spacecraft.

“Fueled by the excitement of access to space, a newfound pioneering spirit, and sometimes even overenthusiastic optimism of first adopters in academia, industry, and the government, the progress of CubeSats toward becoming a science platform has been rapid,” the report states.

While cubesats are frequently launched for technology development educational purposes, their use for science has remained limited to date. The NSF started a small program in 2008 to fund cubesats to perform solar and space physics research, with an average annual budget of $1.4 million. That program has flown eight missions to date with a total of 13 cubesats. Another seven missions involving 11 cubesats are under development in that NSF program.

The report praised that NSF program, and recommended it be continued. “The committee believes that the program has been successful with regard to both goals and that NSF’s current program continues to be valuable,” the report states. That recommendation includes expanding the program beyond solar and space physics to a “broad range of science disciplines.”

While the majority of NASA cubesat missions flown to date have been for technology demonstration, a growing number are being used for science. The report identified NASA science six cubesat missions flown through 2015, but 13 more scheduled for launch over the next few years. That NASA interest is found throughout the agency, including its science, space technology, and human exploration and operations mission directorates.

That diverse interest creates management difficulties, the committee argued. “The explosion of interest in the deployment of CubeSats has led to some management challenges that have the potential to stifle the impact that CubeSats can have for science,” its report states. It recommends that NASA centralize management of agency-wide cubesat efforts while encouraging using such spacecraft for a wide range of scientific missions, as well as using them to provide hands-on experience for students and young professionals.

While individual cubesats can conduct scientific investigations, the committee concluded their real strength is flying these spacecraft in constellations of dozens to hundreds of satellites. Such spacecraft can provide improved coverage of the Earth and the near-Earth space environment that would be prohibitively expensive if done with larger spacecraft.

The committee called on NASA to perform “focused investment and development” of cubesat constellations. “NASA should develop the capability to implement large-scale constellation missions taking advantage of CubeSats or CubeSat-derived technology and a philosophy of evolutionary development,” the report concludes.

The report also recommends continued investment in spacecraft technologies to increase cubesat capabilities. It specifically recommended work in communications, attitude control, propulsion, and advanced miniaturized instruments, with those efforts coordinated both among NASA mission directorates and between NASA and other federal agencies, including the Defense Department.

Greater use of cubesats does bring with it some challenges, the committee found. That includes greater risk — or at least greater perceptions of risk — of contributing to the orbital debris problem, access to spectrum for communications, and availability of affordable launch options.

The report stopped short of making any specific recommendations in those areas. It did conclude that NASA, NSF and other agencies consider reviewing those issues and eventually develop policies. “It is important to consider that current and new guidelines promote innovation, rather than inadvertently stifling it,” the report noted, “and ensure that new guidelines are science-based, equitable, and affordable for emerging players within the United States and internationally.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...