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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

NASA to develop intelligent, cake-sized satellites

nano ship
Illustration of how dozens of the small satellites might be transported into orbit aboard a "mother" spacecraft

NASA animation of micro-satellites being flung into space from a "mother" ship
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A look inside one of the proposed satellites
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QuickTime movie
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By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- NASA plans to cook up three cake-sized satellites packed with tiny technologies for a mission set to launch in 2003. The spacecraft will start out as a bundle, then be smart enough to split up and fly autonomously in formation.

The mission is the fifth in NASA's New Millennium program, which builds and tests relatively low-cost, highly novel missions in space to lay the groundwork for future projects, said Fuk Li, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory manager who oversees the program.

"It is very exciting trying to bring our spacecraft down to the size of a birthday cake and a major technological challenge," Li said. "And those technologies we would validate would enable a number of exciting science missions that NASA would like to conduct."

Among those missions are a 100-satellite constellation proposed for a 2010 launch that would fly around Earth and further into space to study the effects of solar activity that can disrupt spacecraft operations, power grids on Earth and communications systems.

Later on, small satellite constellations also could be used to monitor and study global precipitation and investigate the atmospheres of other planets.

The first mission, called the Nanosat Constellation Trailblazer, will involve the launch of the trio of lightweight, octagonal satellites, which will be flung like saucers into position once they are in space.

"You flip them out, one at a time," Li said. "After they separate, they fly close to each other, and one of the tests we'd like to see is to understand how to manage, control and intercommunicate in this kind of constellation."

nano satellite
A scale model of the planned nanosatellite  

The trick will be for the satellites, weighing about 20 kg (44 pounds), to "talk" to each other and adjust their positions relative to one another if one of the satellites fails or if space weather forces a course correction, he said.

Inside, the satellites will rely on and test such systems as a miniature communications gizmo that will rely on the Global Positioning System, autonomous operation software and a rechargeable lithium ion battery.

The Trailblazer mainly will be a test of its self-flight operations and eight on-board nanotechnologies but it also could return data on the subtle nuances of Earth's magnetosphere, a protective magnetic field that surrounds Earth.

Commercial satellites blazed the trail

Commercial satellite operators have sent up constellations of satellites, but ground controllers have to watch them closely and make adjustments to their trajectories. Also, those missions have come with high price tags, said Dana Brewer, New Millennium program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"We want much cheaper spacecraft so we have to work on how do you integrate all the technologies and small-size the spacecraft," she said.

The $28.6 million mission will be managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and built in cooperation with an aerospace company yet to be named.

Other New Millennium projects currently in space are Deep Space 1, which flew by asteroid Braille in July and Deep Space 2, which was launched aboard the Mars Polar Lander and will probe Mars' icy South Pole for water in December.

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The New Millennium Program
University Nanosatellite Program
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