Friday saw the launch of the Minotaur IV rocket, which made its low-key launch from Alaska Aerospace Corporation's Kodiak Launch Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. Onboard were multiple small satellites, some largely new, some based on proven technology. Nestled somewhere among the others, though, was clue about NASA's near future in space, a strange little craft called the O/OREOS.
For a multi-purpose, standalone research module with an expected mission length of six months--not to mention a NASA project--this satellite is phenomenally cheap, at just $1.75 million. It won't need any propellant to carry out its two experiments--a study of how microbes reproduce in space and a battery of tests on how certain organic molecules respond to weightlessness, radiation and UV light--so it won't carry any. Oh, and it's the size of a loaf of bread
The O/OREOS is one among a growing trend nanosatellites, a class of orbiters that could change the way certain tupes of research are done in space. Small and light enough to be tucked away aboard rockets without interfering with existing payloads or dramatically altering launch weight, they're unprecedentedly affordable to launch, as well as build.
O/OREOS is far from the first of its kind. In the late 70s, researchers at the University of Surrey in England set out to design a small satellite on a a budget of just a few hundred thousand pounds. From a 2001 lecture by participating researcher Martin Sweeting to the Royal Academy of Engineering:
Surrey's first two microsatellites, UoSAT-1 and UoSAT-2, were designed and built by a small team of research engineers, radio amateurs and academic staff at the university. Successfully launched 'free of charge' by NASA in 1981 & 1984 respectively, they carried payloads developed at Surrey for research and education, primarily to demonstrate the potential of such small satellites and also investigate the suitability of emerging commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) microelectronics for use in space.
He speculated that these early satellites, and their successors, could spark a revolution in the use of satellites, and that the creation of a "PC for space"--that is, a widely accessible ticket into orbit--was nigh:
Small satellites will accelerate the exploitation of space for both civil and military needs. Scientists are now able to obtain more frequent flights for their experiments at lower cost - and this will stimulate advances as more speculative payloads can afford to be flown in greater numbers. The low unit cost of the small satellite finally makes commercial constellations a practical commercial proposition - and highly attractive to the a military. Indeed, it is now well within the economic grasp of every nation on earth to possess its own, independent 'eyes-in-the-sky' to observe the economic, environmental and military activities of its neighbours - or indeed double-check on its 'friends'.
So far, this revolution hasn't really happened, if only because the vast majority of the launch capability in the world is controlled by the same few nations that have dominated space travel since the 60s.
But repeated today, Sweeting's predictions ring a bit truer. With the impending rise of private space flight, the launch of satellites like the O/OREOS could become much more commonplace, and not just for NASA. Even hobbyists might get a shot at sending a science project into orbit: a company called Pumpkin Inc already sells kits for constructing small research platforms for $7500, and its customers already have five satellites in low earth orbit.
Even with the rapid miniaturization of electronics, though, the utility of such vehicles is still limited. There will continue to be a large demand for more massive satellites into the foreseeable future--in fact, NASA's largest ever satellite was launched into orbit on Sunday. Additionally, the prospect of garage tinkerers renting space on private rockets and populating low earth orbit with their thousands of weekend projects will give the major space agencies, already worried about space junk, serious heartburn. (Ironically, one of the latest nanosat projects from the University of Surrey was a 6.6-pound satellite design to de-orbit existing space debris.)
In any case, as the first tech demo of NASA's Astrobiology Small Payloads Program, the O/OREOS will help dictate how NASA will continue to use nanosatellites. If everything goes as planned, we can expect to see a lot more of them.