Small satellites can be used for anything from collecting images and videos of the Earth to exploring the Solar System, and as technology improves, more and more uses will become possible. NASA has been searching for ideas to push ahead with its hardware capabilities, and the agency has just announced two new projects to demonstrate the potential of small satellites.
The projects could help predict space weather events, NASA says, as part of the agency's heliophysics program, which "seeks to better understand the nature of space through the solar system and how it changes in response to constant outbursts of energy and particles." the Sun and how it interacts with planetary atmospheres. ”
The first project is the Science-Enabling Technologies for Heliophysics (SETH) proposal, which will demonstrate two new ideas. The first is to improve data communications between satellite constellations using optical communications technology. The second is detecting particles and waves given off by the Sun, particularly energetic neutral atoms that do not have a charge. This could be useful for detecting and predicting space radiation that can be harmful to astronauts and equipment.
The second project is the Solar Cruiser, using an 18,000 square foot solar sail to travel close to the Sun and measure its magnetic field. Energetic explosions called coronal mass ejections send solar material flying away from the Sun's surface into space, and can even affect technology here on Earth. The project aims to improve the predictions of these ejections to protect infrastructure on Earth.
The fact that satellites are small makes the projects more affordable, NASA explains. "By focusing on SmallSats and capitalizing on the cost savings of launching a device, we can test and advance cutting-edge technologies at a reasonable price," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. "We are leading the charge in using this innovative solution to test new mission paradigms and technologies and, in turn, reap great rewards for researching our neighborhood in space."