NIAC Award: Low-Cost SmallSats to Explore to Our Solar System’s Boundaries

Small satellites for exploring the Solar System’s boundaries. (Credit: Robert Staehle)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program
Phase I Award: Up to $125,000 for 9 Months

Low-Cost SmallSats to Explore to Our Solar System’s Boundaries
Robert Staehle
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Overview: New Horizons, Voyager 1 & 2, and Pioneer 10 & 11 are the only spacecraft to venture beyond Saturn’s orbit. Each weighed >250 kg (some >>250 kg), cost >FY19$300 M, and required operations teams with 10s of people. All required radioisotope power to operate at Jupiter and beyond. We propose a completely different approach for focused heliospheric science investigations to 125 AU, and potentially farther beyond the heliopause, without need for radioisotopes and their long, expensive launch approval process.

We propose to define a new architecture to enable outer Solar System (OSS) missions at 1/10th the cost and mass, and 1% of the equivalent continuous power level and operations staffing of such missions today. Inspired by the CubeSat revolution in small, low power electronics and miniature instruments, we believe that a small enough mass and launch size is achievable such that these heliopause explorers could be launched as secondary payloads along with primary missions to the OSS, and use Jupiter swingbys to target different sectors of the heliopause.

The objective of our proposed investigation is to a) define an architecture; b) produce one existence-proof-level conceptual design to show the feasibility of low-cost OSS spacecraft; c) define a reference mission consistent with TRL2-3 to use multiple copies of such a spacecraft to perform Solar System-scale 3D mapping of heliophysics parameters; and d) define an enabling technology maturation path to achieve such a mission.

Mission Concept: If the cost of this architecture, its spacecraft and missions is sufficiently low, then significant numbers could be launched onto multiple escape trajectories to provide a truly multidirectional view of the heliopause and the interstellar medium beyond, providing a new understanding of how the heliosphere interacts with the local interstellar medium, and inferring how such interactions take place between other stars and the parts of the interstellar medium in which they reside.

During each probe’s travel to the heliopause, measurements could be coupled with those taken in the inner Solar System from other platforms to complete our understanding of how the solar wind propagates in all directions, throughout the solar cycle, by comparing the measurements from different probes at similar distances in different directions from the Sun.

2019 Phase 1 and Phase II Selections
2011-2019 Consolidated List

  • Jeff2Space

    Interesting concept. It will be interesting to see if it works in practice. I’m going to run this one by a guy I know who worked on the analysis of the solar concentrator design for ISS as well as the analysis for high gain antennas for satellites like TDRS (and “other” satellites). Having your dish do double duty as both is novel, at least to me.

  • savuporo

    I looked carefully at the diagram and my initial assessment is needs more struts

  • duheagle

    Me too. But this actually seems to be a hat-trick proposal as there is a third aspect to the use of the reflector – as a solar sail. A spherical mirror is less efficient than a parabolic one for energy collection and antenna purposes, but that may wind up being a feature, not a bug. Transmissions back in the direction of Earth won’t be as tightly collimated, but will also be “hear-able” at angles further off-boresight. So these vehicles could likely maintain a fairly decent baud rate inbound just because of the total size of the mirror/antenna/solar sail even if it isn’t pointing directly, but only approximately, at where Earth happens to be at any given moment.

  • duheagle

    I think those are tethers, not struts. And four, anchored at the apexes of an included regular tetrahedron, is the minimum required to accurately locate the payload module within the sphere. Some differential winching around on the part of the payload module could optimize solar flux reception and in/outbound bandwidth. True, there is no redundancy, but the highest likelihood failure mode is not a tether snapping but the balloon envelope being punctured by some random bit of schmutz in space. Build and launch a bunch of these and losing a few won’t be a showstopper.

  • savuporo

    It literally says on the diagram “struts not shown”, and apparently Kerbal jokes aren’t in