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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    2016 Could Bring Breakthrough for Small Satellites

    Thursday, 16 January 2014

    By Ben Iannotta, posted at 12:40 p.m. EST


    Small satellite advocates are working to convince doubters that their spacecraft, some measuring just centimeters across, are not “toys” and can do important things.

    That was the theme of the small satellite panel at AIAA’s SciTech Forum. Panelists said cubesats are demonstrating communications roles and novel science in low Earth orbit, and they could also do that kind of work as far away as Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    But stereotypes are hard to shake, said aerospace engineering professor James Cutler of the University of Michigan. Skeptics in the space community still question the value of small satellites. “These people said the same things about small computers,” he noted.

    One thing that could help would be if engineers had more design freedom and independent launch opportunities. That could come in August 2016, when a jet owned by Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc., takes off from Jacksonville, Fla. It will release a rocket called GOLauncher2 that will carry a set of cubesats, small spacecraft built to a standard established at Stanford University.

    The mission would be a breakthrough, because cubesats or other nanosatellites are typically launched as secondary payloads with larger satellites. Secondary payloads are at the mercy of the primary customer’s schedule, and designers must follow strict regulations set by the launching agency, such as the National Reconnaissance Office.

    The GOLauncher 2 “nanosat launcher” will be the first mission "for the sole purpose of launching cubesats,” said NASA’s Garrett Skrobot, mission manager of the Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center.

    If all goes as planned, small satellites are about to become primary payloads. “Until that point [in] time, we have to abide by rules to ensure the safety of the primary mission,” Skrobot said.