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NASA Seeks Smaller, Better Satellites

Agency puts out call for flight demos of small satellites that can do more, while being launched more quickly and more cheaply, to provide new opportunities for space research and communications.

NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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NASA is seeking ideas for flight demonstrations of small satellites that can increase their technical capabilities and range.

The agency is looking for two types of low-cost flight demonstration proposals for its Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Program.

Specifically, NASA is seeking proposals for Subsystem Flight Validation (SFV) missions and Mission Capability Demonstrations (MCDs). The SFV missions will take advantage of the accessibility and affordability of small spacecraft to quickly validate them without attempting to demonstrate a larger mission capability, according to the BAA.

[ NASA is using modified smartphones to power some types of small satellites. See Meet NASA's Smartphone-Driven Robots. ]

The MCDs, on the other hand, will demonstrate how small spacecraft can be used to perform more capable or less costly missions than larger spacecraft or even to create new mission capabilities.

NASA wants proposals that focus on communications systems and proximity operations for small satellites, as well as propulsion systems for CubeSat systems, which are softball-sized, cube-shaped spacecraft.

Small satellites typically weigh less than 400 pounds and thus cost less than their larger counterparts to develop. They also perform more nimbly in space. Because of these advantages, NASA and other federal agencies are interested in developing them to provide new options for space exploration and observation and to perform missions their larger counterparts can't do.

"These spacecraft represent a new opportunity among the many ways that NASA can approach its diverse goals in science, exploration and education," said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's Space Technology Program, in a press statement.

NASA's interest in small satellites follows research the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) already has been doing in the field.

DARPA wants to build a network of wirelessly connected small satellites through its System F6 program. F6 stands for Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange.

DARPA also is exploring less-expensive ways to launch small satellites, which typically are sent into space as payload when a larger satellite is launched and can cost as much as $30,000 per pound.

The research agency's Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program also aims to reduce the time it takes to launch a small satellite, as well as find a way to get around weather constraints that cause launches to be cancelled at the last minute.

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