Small satellites tackle big scientific questions | 11/16/2018 | Staff
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CU Boulder will soon have new eyes on the sun. Two miniature satellites designed by researchers at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) are scheduled to launch later this month on Spaceflight's SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The new missions—called the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)—will collect data on the physics of the sun and its impact on life on Earth.

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These "CubeSats," which are smaller than a microwave oven, are set to blast into a near-Earth orbit alongside more than 60 other spacecraft. According to Spaceflight, the SSO-A: SmallSat Express is the largest dedicated rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date.

The upcoming missions underscore CU Boulder's growing leadership in deploying CubeSats for scientific research, said Tom Woods, associate director of LASP. He explained that as opportunities to launch spacecraft from commercial missions like SSO-A expand, small-sized satellites will become increasingly popular tools among scientists.

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"The time is right to do more and more science with these small satellites," said Woods, the principal investigator of the MinXSS-2 mission.

In part, that's because they aren't traditional satellites. CubeSats are designed to take on big scientific questions in small packages, often using off-the-shelf equipment to keep costs and weight down. The antenna for MinXSS-2, for example, is made from a hardware store tape measure that will spring into place once the CubeSat reaches orbit.

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A typical CubeSat mission costs around $2 million to build and operate—far less than a full-sized science satellite that runs into the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. MinXSS-2 and CSIM were both funded by grants from NASA.

"Launch costs go by kilograms," Woods said. "If you can get your satellites smaller, it costs a lot less to launch them."

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