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Going Small

December 28, 2015

NASA’s next Mars lander will have some company for the long trip: twin communication satellites the size of a briefcase. As the lander plunges through the Martian atmosphere, the satellites will relay its signals back to Earth.

The two spacecraft, known as Marco, are only a test. There’s already a big satellite in Mars orbit that’ll serve as a relay station. But if Marco works, many more small satellites could follow.

In fact, NASA, universities, and private companies are developing smaller and smaller spacecraft to do a variety of missions. Some craft aren’t much bigger than baseballs, and weigh only a few pounds.

Collectively, they’re known as nanosats, and a couple of hundred have been launched. They often fly as tag-alongs to larger spacecraft. There’s usually an extra bit of room for small payloads, which can serve as ballast to keep the rocket balanced during launch.

Nanosats cost a lot less than conventional satellites, and they take much less time to develop. That opens up space to university and even high school students, as well as small companies.

In the future, such satellites may perform space science missions. As an example, they could monitor space weather — the interplay between the Sun and Earth’s magnetic field. And one company is developing nanosats for missions to the Moon.

One researcher has a suggestion for an even more remote target for a small satellite: Alpha Centauri. More about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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