JPL Explores Sending CubeSats to Phobos

by Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Imagine retrieving a soil sample from the Martian moon Phobos and returning it to Earth using two spacecraft so small you can hold them in your hands.

That’s just one of seven advanced inner Solar System missions using Cubesats that are being explored by Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers under a study funded by the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NIAC) Program, which looks at technologies that are still about a decade away.


JPL’s Robert Staehle presented the results of his team’s work during the NIAC Spring Symposium in Pasadena last week. Scientists working on 29 other studies presented their work during the three-day gathering.

Staehle said that interplanetary CubeSats could revolutionize the exploration of the inner Solar System at a cost 10 cheaper than NASA’s small Discovery-class missions.

“CubeSats in low Earth orbit have enabled dozens of universities to develop and place in orbit student-led, student-designed, student-built, and student-operated satellites investigating all manner of scientifically exciting phenomena, while giving graduates of these programs a competitive edge they bring to American technology and industry,” Staehle explained in the study’s synopsis. “Additionally, CubeSats have enabled Government-sponsored space experimentation and technology development on an accelerated schedule for unprecedented low cost. If successful, this system study of the technologies to enable Interplanetary CubeSats will open the door to a similar revolution in access to space and new discoveries beyond Earth.”

Staehle and his team have been looking at six advanced technologies that could be combined to make that possible.

“Using the pressure of sunlight, a gravitationally defined Interplanetary Superhighway, advanced electronics and instrumentation, and laser communications, may extend the turn-of-the-millennium CubeSat standard for nanosatellites to distances far beyond Earth’s magnetic cocoon,” the synopsis reads.

Using CubeSats for interplanetary missions would represent a significant sea chance for JPL, which specialized in building multi-billion spacecraft that spend years roving around on the dusty surface of Mars.

The Phobos missions would involve sending two CubeSats to the enigmatic Martian moon.  One spacecraft would land on the surface, collect a sample, and rendezvous wit the other orbiting Cubesat. They would then head back to Earth together. Staehle admitted it was a very ambitious idea that is still very far from being considered a viable mission at this point.

Staehle and his colleagues also are studying six other potential missions, including: radio quiet lunar studies, solar polar imaging, asteroid mineral mapping, and solar system escape flights.

In addition to their small size and simplicity, CubeSats can be launched as secondary payloads on missions headed for geosynchronous orbit or interplanetary space. This gets around the high cost of launching spacecraft on dedicated rockets.

Staehle said that he has talked to Space Systems Loral about flying CubeSats as secondary payloads on the company’s satellites. Company officials have indicated that the spacecraft would not result in any interference with the primary payload.

Staehle urged NASA to make CubeSat slots available on some fraction of its geosynchronous and Earth escape missions to foster development in this area.

The study is one of 30 funded by NIAC under $100,000 Phase I contracts. NIAC will award up to 10 Phase II contracts worth $500,000 apiece sometime this summer.