If ASTERIA goes well, the agency will look into using small satellites known as CubeSats for future astronomy missions.
NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) plans to test the ability of a small satellite known as a CubeSat to observe the changes in a star’s light. The Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA), part of an early-career program at JPL known as Phaeton, will use precision photometry to measure the intensity of an object’s light, known as its flux. The small satellite will help NASA determine the viability of CubeSats as space telescopes for future observational missions.
Flux is typically captured with large telescopes that have the ability to correct for errors in the initial measurements. With sophisticated computing system, scientists can eliminate “noise” in their pictures—things like incidental radiation or shifting temperatures that are captured in the observations.
If ASTERIA shows that CubeSats can do the same sort of filtering, then the mission could pave the way to a whole new set of tools for astronomers.
“CubeSats offer a relatively inexpensive means to test new technologies,” says Amanda Donner, mission assurance manager for ASTERIA. “The modular design of CubeSats also makes them customizable, giving even a small group of researchers and students access to space.”
The space agency had to miniaturize the technology used in precision photometry, including an active thermal control system and a steady astronomical camera.
“One of the biggest engineering challenges has been fitting the pointing and thermal control electronics into such a small package,” says Matthew Smith, ASTERIA’s lead systems engineer. “Typically, those components alone are larger than our entire spacecraft. Now that we’ve miniaturized the technology for ASTERIA, it can be applied to other CubeSats or small instruments.”
While ASTERIA is primarily a test platform, it’s still a significant challenge for Phaeton team members. “We designed, built, tested, and delivered ASTERIA, and now we’re flying it,” Donner says. “JPL takes the training approach of learning-by-doing seriously.”