These small satellites range in size from a loaf of bread to a small washing machine and weigh from a few to 181.4 kg, NASA said in a statement on Monday.
Their small size keeps development and launch costs down as they often hitch a ride to space as a “secondary payload” on another mission’s rocket — providing an economical avenue for testing new technologies and conducting science.
“NASA is increasingly using small satellites to tackle important science problems across our mission portfolio,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“They also give us the opportunity to test new technological innovations in space and broaden the involvement of students and researchers to get hands-on experience with space systems,” Zurbuchen noted.
Small-satellite technology has led to innovations in how scientists approach Earth observations from space.
Scheduled to launch this month, RAVAN, the Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes, is a CubeSat that will demonstrate new technology for detecting slight changes in Earth’s energy budget at the top of the atmosphere – essential measurements for understanding greenhouse gas effects on climate, NASA said.
In spring 2017, two CubeSats are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station for a detailed look at clouds. Data from the satellites will help improve scientists’ ability to study and understand clouds and their role in climate and weather.
In early 2017, MiRaTA – the Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration mission – is scheduled to launch into space with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System-1.
MiRaTA’s miniature sensors will collect data on temperature, water vapor and cloud ice that can be used in weather forecasting and storm tracking.
NASA’s early investment in these new Earth-observing technologies has matured to produce two robust science missions.
CYGNSS — the Cyclone, Global Navigation Satellite System — will be NASA’s first Earth science small satellite constellation. Set to be launched in December this year, the mission will collect data to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.
TROPICS — the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats — will use radiometer instruments based on the MiRaTA CubeSat that will make frequent measurements of temperature and water vapour profiles throughout the life cycle of individual storms, NASA said.