2017.A.1.1. Deep Space CubeSats and nanosats at JPL


Anthony Freeman (1)

  1. JPL/Caltech




Deep space cubesats


As NASA’s lead center for robotic exploration of our solar system, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is known for our large, flagship missions, such as Voyager, with its Grand Tour of the Outer Planets; and the Mars Rovers, which have excited millions worldwide with their hair-raising landings. More recently, JPL has engaged with the cubesat/smallsat community to develop smaller missions for deep space exploration.

At present more than a dozen cubesat flight projects are under way at the laboratory: some in flight, some in development, some in advanced formulation. To succeed in exploring deep space these cubesat/nanosat missions have to address several challenges: the more severe radiation environment, communications and navigation at a distance, propulsion, and packaging of instruments that can return valuable science into a compact volume/mass envelope. Instrument technologies, including cameras, magnetometers, spectrometers, radiometers, and even radars are undergoing miniaturization to fit on these smaller platforms. Other key technologies are being matured for smallsats and nanosats in deep space, including micro-electric propulsion, compact radio (and optical) communications, and onboard data reduction.

JPL’s missions that springboard off these developments including the first two deep space cubesats (INSPIRE); the first pair of cubesats to be sent to another planet (MARCO); a helicopter “drone” on Mars to extend the reach of future rovers; plans for a Lunar Flashlight mission to shine a light on the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon’s poles; a Near Earth Asteroid cubesat mission; and a cubesat constellation to demonstrate time series measurements of storm systems on Earth. Several cubesats will fly on NASA’s EM-1 mission to the Moon. Deep Space smallsat studies recently selected for funding by NASA include a free-flying nanosat probe to sample the noble gases in the atmosphere of Venus, and a constellation of cubesats to understand the origins of Phobos and Deimos. Also under investigation are a swarm of cubesats to explore the Saturn system, and cubesat “ride-alongs” at Jupiter. This presentation will provide an update on all of these planned and potential future missions.

The work described here was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


  • Will be made available for download after the workshop

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