2012.K.1.2 Planetary Science in an iCubeSat Era


Sara Seager (1)

  1. MIT, USA

Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. Her planetary science research focuses on theory, computation, and data analysis of exoplanets. Her research has introduced many new ideas to the field of exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. Professor Seager’s space instrumentation group is developing “ExoplanetSat” a 3U CubeSat capable of high precision pointing, with the science goal of detecting small transiting exoplanets orbiting bright, sun-like stars. The prototype is intended to be the first of a planned fleet of nanosatellites, aimed to demonstrate the graduated growth of a constellation as a new paradigm for space science missions. In addition to being the PI of ExoplanetSat, Professor Seager is co-leading CommCube, a platform to demonstrate novel small satellite space communication technology, and is involved in the MIT-Harvard REXIS instrument on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

Before joining MIT in 2007, Professor Seager spent four years on the senior research staff at the Carnegie Institution of Washington preceded by three years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Her PhD is from Harvard University. Professor Seager is on the advisory board for Arykd Astronautics and the Rosalind Franklin Society. Professor Seager is the 2007 recipient of the American Astronomical Society’s Helen B. Warner Prize and is an AAAS Fellow. She has been recognized in the media by Popular Science Magazine’s Fifth Annual Brilliant Ten in 2006, Discover Magazine’s “Best 20 under 40” in 2008, and she was named in Nature’s top Ten in 2011.


Keynote (Science)



Planetary science is the study of planets, moons, and planetary systems. Even after decades of study and spacecraft visits, lofty science goals remain. Arguably the most exciting goal is the search for signs of past or present life on the surface or subsurface of a handful of solar system planets and moons. Of equal interest is asteroid characterization for future resource extraction. The newest field of planetary science is the discovery and characterization of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than the sun. While big NASA missions are becoming cost-prohibitive, the rise of CubeSats suggests a possible new paradigm with frequent launches of highly specialized small missions. The question remains as to whether big science can fit within a small package—namely the power, mass, volume, and data limitations. I will discuss which planetary science goals for which solar system bodies are not only reachable but suited to iCubeSat-type of missions.


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