Tiny Spacecraft are the Future!

For a long time, the scientific community has been hopeful for a mission to some of the most interesting moons of the solar system.  Europa, Enceladus, and Ganymede all have subsurface oceans and will give substantial insights into the formation and evolution of life in the solar system and beyond. The only problem is that it costs an astronomical (literally) amount of money to get there.  A bare bones mission to Europa would cost over 600 Million dollars, and if we are spending that much we had better be sure it will work.

Money aside, the technology to get appropriate science returns from these worlds is lacking.  We would need to develop a specialized drill that could slowly churn through the thick ice to where the liquid water hides within these moons, around 40 Km deep.  We have enough trouble drilling through the 5 Km thick ice of Antarctica on our own planet where humans can have direct involvement. But if we can get to the subsurface oceans of the tidally heated moons, this is where the great scientific rewards will be.  Will we find the right conditions for life? Will we find life similar to Earth bacteria or fish-like creatures? Will we find nothing but water and ice?  Regardless of what we find, it will quickly narrow down our understanding of the formation of life, and let us see how rare (or plentiful) life can be.

The final issue comes down to uncertainty.  We don’t know what the ice will be like, we don’t know exactly what to expect when we reach the ocean; we require more reconnaissance in order to justify the huge sums of money required to probe these alien worlds.  This is where CAPE comes in.

Technologist Jaime Esper and his team are planning to test the stability of a prototype entry vehicle –the Micro-Reentry Capsule — this summer during a high-altitude balloon mission from Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Credit: NASA/Goddard

If we can send a small, inexpensive satellite with technologies that are continuously becoming smaller to a distant world, it would be able to send back valuable data to help us decide where to send a more expensive probe.  And when we do send the more expensive probe with the fancy instruments, we can do it with the confidence that we have chosen the right target and realistic science goals.

The CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE) could become just that.  NASA is advancing the technology of the small loaf-of-bread-sized probe with the hopes of performing two tasks: Travelling to a planetary target with a service module (mother ship), and using a planetary entry probe that could survive a trip through an alien atmosphere, returning valuable science and engineering data.

The entire craft would weigh only 11 pounds and would be no larger than 4 inches on a side.  Having tiny solar panels and a small internal battery, it can power its instruments and travel to another planetary body.  Once there, it would release the entry vehicle to plummet into the alien atmosphere, communicating density, composition, and temperature back to the service ship,  to finally relay the information back to Earth.

A balloon flight this summer will test the re-entry capabilities of the craft, and NASA scientists hope to send it to the International Space Station as early as 2016.  It could usher in a new era of space flight that is cheap, efficient, and effective.  The most important part is that it will tell us where to look to advance our answers to some of the biggest questions about the origins of the solar system.


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