Thruster technology for smallsats and CubeSats was recently mentioned in the Economist as a primary need for these satellites for increasing their usefulness and lifetime in space. With small thrusters, large constellations of satellites are possible for applications like globe-covering telecommunications networks and satellite imagery.
Many of the CubeSats and nanosats flown to date have been fairly simple spacecraft, without much ability to maneuver, perform complex tasks, or travel beyond low Earth orbit. NASA is looking to change that situation. The space agency recently selected 26 projects relating to CubeSats and nanosats for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I programs. The awards will fund a wide range of research projects, include the development of propulsion technology, solar power generators, improved scientific instrumentation, and dedicated launch vehicles. In some cases , new technologies that are scalable to larger spacecraft will be tested on CubeSats. Nine of the projects were chosen specifically to advance technologies needed to send CubeSats to explore the moon and other deep space destinations. This has the potential to significantly change the way deep space exploration is conducted. Instead of one giant spacecraft, imagine being able to send out a fleet of extremely small ones that are none-the-less high capable. College or even high school students might be able to explore other worlds. A number of the companies selected for funding will be familiar to Parabolic Arc’s readers. These include Jon Goff’s Altius Space Machines, Planetary Resources, Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, OBITEC, Ventions LLC and Terminal Velocity Aerospace. The 26 awards are for six months and up to $125,000 apiece. NASA is investing as much as $3.25 million in this round of the programs on CubeSats and nanosats projects.