JPL Explores Sending CubeSats to Phobos

10 Comments

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.

10 Responses to “JPL Explores Sending CubeSats to Phobos”


  1. 1 Mark Comstock

    April Fool’s

  2. 2 Doug Messier

    Nope. This is real

  3. 3 Morris Jones

    If NASA loses funding for its Mars program, cheap missions like this will become even more important.

  4. 4 Mark Comstock

    Cubesats would simply never withstand the radiation environment.

  5. 5 Marcus Zottl

    And how would CubeSats be more exposed to the radiation environment than regular spacecraft?

    It’s not like the majority of mass and volume of say MSL is dedicated radiation protection – at least as far as I know.

  6. 6 Simon Vanden Bussche

    They are in the same environment, of course, but because of their smaller size the average (aluminium) shielding will be significantly less, resulting in higher radiation doses.

    Regular cubesats use COTS parts for almost everything (with rad-hard parts you wouldn’t come close to any decent functionality in these very small satellites). Using them for an interplanetary mission is definitely challenging, but not impossible. Using a combination of part screening, spot shielding and smart system architectures, COTS parts have even been used in GEO or GPS orbits (which have significantly higher radiation doses due to the outer Van Allen belt).

  7. 7 Doug Messier

    The point of the study is to investigate what would be needed to get CubeSat out beyond LEO at some point in the future. They are look at six advanced technologies and trying to figure out how to bring them together so they can actually function effectively. Keep in mind that NIAC is looking at looking at long-range concepts that could be as long as a decade out.

    I’m sure they’re looking at all of these things you guys are discussing. JPL is the most experienced organization in the world in dealing with deep space radiation environments, so I’m sure that’s high on the list.

    If CubeSats are not ideal for some missions, they might go with somewhat larger spacecraft that would still be a lot cheaper than current Discovery mission. Looking at CubeSats gives you sort of a base floor that you can look at and say, “We can do this and this with CubeSats but not that. So, what’s the smallest spacecraft larger than a CubeSat that we can accomplish that other investigation with?” That’s a very useful exercise.

    I’ve included the synopsis of the study below to give everyone a better sense of exactly what they’re trying to accomplish:

    Today, Solar System exploration missions are the exclusive domain of space agencies and their scientists and engineers who can muster multi-hundred-million dollar budgets. While their accomplishments are broad, highly sophisticated and literally out of this world, the high cost limits our pace of important discoveries.

Interplanetary CubeSats offer an opportunity to conduct focused science investigations around the inner Solar System at a cost ten times lower than missions mounted today. In much the same way that CubeSats weighing a few pounds have dramatically increased low cost access to space experimentation in low Earth orbit, this study intends to focus development of six technologies in unison so as to enable dramatically lower-cost exploration of the Solar System and our Earth’s more distant environs. 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. 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. 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.

  8. 8 Doug Messier

    JPL isn’t the only one looking at CubeSats for the moon and elsewhere:

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2012/04/02/swiss-look-to-fly-to-moon-on-a-few-drops-of-fuel/

    Inner solar system exploration could open very broadly in the next 10 years. It will be an interesting trend to follow.

  9. 9 Brandon Scott Barney

    Thanks for the synopsis Doug. I think that the combination of Cubesats and John Hunter’s Quicklaunching could get costs down enough to flood the solar system with robots and sensors. I’m convinced that we are going to live to see our dream.

  10. 10 Doug Messier

    There’s a recording of Staehle’s full presentation here: http://www.parabolicarc.com/2012/04/04/video-presentation-on-interplanetary-cubesat-missions/

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