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Magnetoshell aerocapture
Magnetoshell aerocapture could help ease interplanetary spacecraft into orbit. (Credit: MSNW)

NASA says it’ll provide resources for a University of Washington research team that’s working on a concept to put small satellites in orbit around other worlds using magnetic interactions.

The concept, known as magnetoshell aerocapture, is one of nine university-led technology development projects winning NASA’s backing under the Smallsat Technology Partnerships initiative. The nationwide program is managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

“U.S. universities are great partners for space technology research and development, and this may be especially true with small spacecraft,” Chris Baker, NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program executive, said in a news release.  “The ability for educational institutions to take technology from the laboratory to orbit with low-cost small spacecraft provides an immense source of innovation and fresh perspective in the development of new space capabilities.”

Magnetoshell aerocapture uses magnetic fields and magnetized plasma to help slow down spacecraft and get them into stable orbits. The technology is particularly suited for interplanetary missions involving small spacecraft, where size and weight constraints may rule out using thrusters, physical aeroshells or other weighty deceleration systems.

UW researchers have been working on the technology for years. Last year, an associated team from Redmond, Wash.-based MSNW received a $500,000 NASA grant for ground-based development work on magnetoshell aerocapture.

The technology can turn less than an ounce of plasma into a magnetized deceleration barrier that’s as wide as a football field.

“It looks a lot like a deflector shield from ‘Star Trek,'” propulsion scientist David Kirtley told GeekWire at the time. “While it looks like that, the physics is totally different. What it does, in fact, is act more like a parachute.”

NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology projects focus on three technological frontiers: instrument technologies for small spacecraft, technologies that enable large swarms of small spacecraft, and technologies that enable deep-space missions for small spacecraft.

The nine newly selected teams will have the opportunity to establish a two-year cooperative agreement with NASA, through which each university will receive up to $200,000 per year. As part of the agreement, NASA researchers will collaborate on the projects. UW’s team, for instance, has been paired up with Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The other eight projects are:

  • Active Thermal Architecture for Cryogenic Optical Instruments, Utah State University, collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • SPRINT: Scheduling Planning Routing Intersatellite Network Tool, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, collaborating with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Ames Research Center.
  • High SPecific-impulse Electrospray Explorer for Deep-space (HiSPEED), MIT collaborating with JPL.
  • Autonomous Nanosatellite Swarming using Radio Frequency and Optical Navigation, Stanford University collaborating with Ames Research Center.
  • Application of Machine-learning Algorithms for On-board Asteroid Shape Model Determination and Spacecraft Navigation, University of Arizona, collaborating with Michigan State University and Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • Move to Talk, Talk to Move: Tightly Integrated Communication and Controls for Coordinated Swarms of Small Spacecraft, Colorado School of Mines in Golden, collaborating with JPL.
  • Distributed Attitude Control and Maneuvering for Deep Space SmallSats, Purdue University, collaborating with Goddard Space Flight Center and Marshall Space Flight Center,
  • Milli-Arcsecond (MAS) Imaging with Smallsat-Enabled Super-resolution, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, collaborating with Goddard Space Flight Center.
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