Now Entering Orbit: Tiny Lego-like Modular Satellites

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One of those was the computing experiment Maestro, led by David Barnhart of the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute. Chips and processors in space systems have lagged, because of power limitations and the need to cope with radiation. “In the particular case of processors, the ones that were the most radiation-tolerant were also the slowest you could possibly imagine,” says Barnhart. His goal: To demonstrate that a processor with 49 cores, hardened against space radiation, could work.

The upside of being part of the Excite launch, for Maestro, was simple: It was free. “The downside is everything is experimental,” he adds. Indeed, because of the communications glitch, Barnhart didn’t get any data back. But his team did learn that they could build both the payload and the software to make sure the cores are working in orbit.

Another Excite payload that didn’t get to exercise its full potential was R3S, a NASA instrument that aimed to help understand how much radiation airline workers encounter. “They were never able to turn on R3S,” says Carrie Rhoades, Langley Research Center’s smallsat lead. But she, like Barnhart, doesn’t rue that result. “It was a high-risk project in the first place,” she says. “We should be taking those kind of risks.”

The National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the US federal government’s surveillance satellites, is taking a similar approach, playing around with small standardized systems that engineers can hook instruments into. Like NASA, the agency historically has launched hugely expensive satellites that sometimes keep doing their jobs for more than 20 years, meaning they may not have the latest-greatest stuff inside. Sending up few extremely costly satellites can tamp down on risk-taking, because there’s no good way to fix a problem in a far-out orbit, or change design before launch.

In response, and to take advantage of commercial technology, the NRO established a new “Greenlighting” program in 2017, to provide developers with a quick, cheap way to test technology in space. The NRO has created a standard interface, the size of a deck of cards, that people can stick their experiments into. Multiple interfaces can be stacked together, and experiments swapped in or out, before launch. The stack can distribute resources to multiple experiments, but it unlike a HISat it must hook into the body of an actual satellite.

One of the first Greenlighting experiments deemed ready for space was a processor the size of a quarter that had been developed by the oil and gas industry. The idea was to see how something designed to survive the rigors of energy extraction could fare in another harsh environment. Greenlighting also can test subcomponents, such as materials that might end up in future full-scale satellites. In November of 2019, Greenlighting launched four experiments, and has others on the horizon.

Meanwhile, NovaWurks’ glitches apparently haven’t dampened business. In September, the company was bought for an undisclosed sum in the seven digits by Saturn, a manufacturer that will use satlets to make communications satellites.

NovaWurks’s satlets are also key to Athena, a joint project between NOAA, NASA, and the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. As part of climate change research, the effort will measure solar energy that Earth reflects and absorbs, gathered via a very small telescope attached to the satlet. Because the team only needs to develop the telescope itself, and not the vehicle to host it, they can work more quickly and easily than before. Athena will test technology that might later go on a larger, more complicated mission.

That “quickly” is important not just from a tech side but also from a human side: Missions often take years and years of work on the ground before they are even scheduled to book a ride on a rocket. It may be a long time before any one engineer gets to work on something that’s going to space, and even longer before that project actually achieves liftoff. “Some of the younger engineers were a bit disenfranchised,” says Michelle Garn, Athena’s project manager. Standardizing the satellite infrastructure and keeping it small means engineers can get stuff space-ready in a few months—and take bigger risks.

For NASA, that culture change toward embracing risk has been the most challenging part of accessorize-your-satlet sort of work, because it’s such a shift from the way the agency has operated in the past. But maybe NASA and other space places like the NRO are adjusting to the idea that it’s okay to have smaller ambitions sometimes, and that when you shrink your goals, it’s okay to risk screwing up, and even to actually screw up. Perhaps these agencies can soon accept the idea that a mission sometimes can be little more than a missionlet.

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