CubeSats to the Rescue?

Small spacecraft will have an impact on astrobiology, although their use may be limited.

Mars Cube One (MarCO) is a pair of cereal box-size spacecraft scheduled to be launched next year along with NASA’s next Mars lander.

Space scientists and engineers from around the world are discussing new approaches to future space missions this week at the 11th International Academy of Astronautics Low-Cost Planetary Mission Conference held in Berlin. It’s a great opportunity to gain insights into what type of missions might be flown in the near future by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Space Agency, and the Russian Space Agency.

On the meeting’s opening day, Gregg Vane from NASA’s planetary sciences office said that while NASA has a goal of reducing mission costs, the agency learned from mistakes made in the 1990s, when former administrator Daniel Goldin championed the “faster, better, cheaper” approach, but also lost a couple of Mars missions.  Vane’s presentation made it clear that NASA has high expectations for scientific CubeSat missions. One astrobiology experiment called O/OREOS (Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses) is already in Earth orbit, and two more CubeSats—Mars Cube One (MarCO) A and B—will be launched next March on the same rocket that delivers the InSight lander to Mars. The cereal-box-size MarCO CubeSats will conduct communication relay tests as they fly past Mars in September 2016, becoming the first CubeSats to reach another planet.

Japan and Russia also have an interest in small satellites, although the Japanese PROCYON asteroid explorer launched piggyback on the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft last December is considerably bigger—50 kilograms, compared to 5.5 kg for OREOS. Russia’s MicroSat will be limited to 40 kilograms.

Alvaro Gimenez, Director of Science and Robotic Exploration of ESA, emphasized the need for low-cost spacecraft as a way to allow more scientists to participate in space missions. His message was mixed, however. While he announced a goal to double ESA’s low-cost and medium-cost missions from five to ten per decade, the funding for the low-cost missions would be capped at a very low 50 million euros each (about $60 million, not including the payloads, which are covered by individual member states or international partners). And medium-cost missions will still outnumber low-cost missions by a ratio of two to one.

What does all this mean for astrobiology? While CubeSats and other low-cost spacecraft are well suited to take physical measurements, they have limited use for astrobiology. An exception is OREOS, which is investigating how life and its components respond to space radiation. CubeSats typically are limited to taking one kind of measurement, and this will not be sufficient if the goal is to measure complex environmental conditions on another planet, or try to detect extraterrestrial life. However, if several low-cost probes are used at once, such as in the Mars penetrator-type mission that a group of colleagues and I are proposing at the conference, this limitation might be overcome. In the end, only time will tell whether a complex flagship-type mission or many low-cost missions will best move us forward in the quest to find habitable places and life in the universe.

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