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Small spacecraft and satellites help NASA advance scientific and human exploration, reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space. Through technological innovation, small satellites enable entirely new architectures for a wide range of activities in space with the potential for exponential jumps in transformative science.

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Nine university teams will collaborate with NASA to advance small spacecraft technologies that will help pave the way for human and robotic lunar exploration. Under NASA’s Artemis program the agency plans to return humans to the Moon by 2024; small spacecraft, or “SmallSats,” will help blaze the trail.

Currently, small spacecraft – ranging in size ANYWHO between a shoebox up to that of a refrigerator – mainly operate in low-Earth orbit. Technology advancements, through these collaborative partnerships, will more fully realize the potential of SmallSats as they extend their capabilities to complex lunar exploration missions.

“As we prepare for the next robotic and crewed missions to the Moon, we expect small spacecraft to help forge the path ahead by scouting terrain, prospecting for resources and establishing communications and navigation capabilities in cislunar space,” said Christopher Baker, program executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology program. “Taking advantage of their small size and shorter development timelines, small spacecraft are increasingly capable as both rapid precursor missions and as cost-effective, in-space infrastructure.”

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CubeSats are compact and cannot efficiently radiate heat, yet lunar missions will demand more electrical power (which produces heat as a byproduct) for equipment like more powerful radio transmitters while simultaneously needing to deal with the harsh cislunar thermal environment. This technology addresses an increasingly critical need to radiate heat efficiently from small spacecraft. This partnership will develop an additively manufactured deployable radiator that uses integrated flexible oscillating heat pipes to provide more efficient heat transfer than traditional thermal straps.

“These partnerships between academia and NASA help cultivate the rapid, agile and cost-conscious small spacecraft approaches that are evolving in the university community, as well as increase support to university efforts and foster a new generation of innovators for NASA and the nation,” said Jim Cockrell, chief technologist for the Small Spacecraft Technology program. “Working with universities provides access to the bright minds who will one day lead the journey of exploration.”

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The SmallSat Technology Partnerships initiative has four primary objectives: develop needed SmallSat technologies for NASA; engage university students in real-world SmallSat projects; provide student teams with NASA expertise and facilities; and allow NASA engineers to gain insights into the innovative and rapid development paradigm typical of academia. The Small Spacecraft Technology program has made five rounds of these awards since 2013. Projects are awarded in amounts up to $200,000 to the university team for up to two years in collaboration with a half-time NASA collaborator per year.

Managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Small Spacecraft Technology program expands U.S. capability to execute unique and more affordable missions through rapid development and in-space demonstration of capabilities for small spacecraft that are applicable to exploration, science and the commercial space sector. The program enables new mission architectures through the use of small spacecraft while seeking to expand the reach of small spacecraft to new destinations and challenging new environments.

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Small spacecraft and satellites help NASA advance scientific and human exploration, reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space. Through technological innovation, small satellites enable entirely new architectures for a wide range of activities in space with the potential for exponential jumps in transformative science.

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In the future, SmallSats could provide exploration missions with communications relays or navigation services at the Moon, similar to how we use communications satellites and GPS around Earth. This capability could play an important role in helping the agency build a sustainable presence on the Moon.

NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program selected the university teams for its SmallSat Technology Partnerships initiative to mature new systems and capabilities. The technology development projects focus on three technical areas related to needs of Moon-bound missions:

  • Use of small spacecraft to help provide lunar communications and navigation services
    Small spacecraft propulsion for lunar missions and potential return of lunar samples using small spacecraft
  • Small spacecraft electrical power and thermal management systems tailored for the distant and harsh environment between Earth and the Moon