NASA taps Draper to help accelerate planetary exploration using cold atom technology, ChipSats

June 18, 2014
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., 18 June 2014. Engineers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., are developing a low-cost concept for NASA under $100,000 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., 18 June 2014. Engineers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., are developing a low-cost concept for NASA under $100,000 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

Draper engineers are working on a concept that could accelerate the space agency’s ability to explore other planets, by combining initial orbiting survey missions and follow-on landing studies into a single mission. Draper personnel are investigating the use of cold atom sensing technology to enable a CubeSat to take gravity measurements over Jupiter’s moon Europa to spot areas of interest, such as water, and then eject a batch of tiny ChipSats to land and take close observations and samples on the surface.

Draper envisions the spacecraft as being approximately three feet long. The high-accuracy, cold atom inertial sensors would enable advanced detection capability in a small, low-cost package. Draper is also developing cold atom inertial sensors for other applications.

Gravity measurements are generally taken by two spacecraft flying near a planetary body. As the body’s gravitational forces pull on them, the relative drift between the two spacecraft is measured. These measurements are then used to map the gravitational field of the planetary body’s surface, which can be used to look for water and other items of interest that inform planning for future missions that may take place years later.

Draper is working with Mason Peck, an engineering professor at Cornell University, to study the viability of using ChipSats, which have not been used for planetary surface exploration, but may be well suited for the task as their lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface. The low cost of ChipSats could also enable NASA to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact.

“This is a great example of the innovation funded by NIAC – utilizing the emerging capabilities of small space system to perform adaptive, event-driven, regional-scale science,” explains John West, who leads advanced concepts and technology development in Draper’s space systems group.

NIAC selects proposals based on the concepts' potential “to transform future aerospace missions, enable new capabilities, or significantly alter and improve current approaches.”

Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit, engineering research and development organization dedicated to solving critical national problems in national security, space systems, biomedical systems, and energy. Core capabilities include guidance, navigation and control; miniature low power systems; highly reliable complex systems; information and decision systems; autonomous systems; biomedical and chemical systems; and secure networks and communications.

About the Author

Courtney E. Howard | Chief Editor, Intelligent Aerospace

Courtney enjoys writing about all things high-tech in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Intelligent Aerospace and Military & Aerospace Electronics. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics and space geek. Connect with Courtney at [email protected], @coho on Twitter, on LinkedIn, and on Google+.

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