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Thomas Zurbuchen
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate, gives a keynote address at the SmallSat Conference in Logan, Utah. (NASA Photo via Twitter)

LOGAN, Utah — NASA is already deep into small-satellite science, but today the space agency’s associate administrator for science signaled that NASA will be getting in even deeper.

“We think, in science, smallsats are big,” Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a keynote address to the SmallSat Conference here in Logan.

Zurbuchen turned the spotlight on several initiatives that will heighten NASA’s use of small satellites and commercial services, balancing a mission portfolio that has big-budget missions such as the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope on other end of the cost spectrum.

  • NASA will aim to invest roughly $100 million annually in CubeSats as well as slightly larger small satellites.
  • The space agency will pursue contracts to purchase imagery and other data products from three commercial satellite ventures: Planet, DigitalGlobe and Spire. “This is not the last time we’re doing this,” Zurbuchen said.
  • Going forward, NASA will be more proactive about offering rideshare launch opportunities for science payloads ranging up to ESPA-class satellites, which typically weigh as much as 400 pounds.

An EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, or ESPA ring, would be included in the plans for every NASA science mission that’s put on the books, Zurbuchen said. “We’re not going to ask, would it be needed,” he said. “You have to convince us that we don’t need it.”

Zurbuchen said up to $65 million would be earmarked for small-satellite technology demonstration opportunities having to do with heliophysics, which already accounts for 17 of the roughly 50 smallsat and CubeSat missions that NASA has in the works.

He added that as much as $55 million could be put toward small satellites designed to do planetary science, under the aegis of an existing NASA program known as Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration, or SIMPLEx.

“The point is that we’re in business for small satellites and CubeSats,” Zurbuchen said.

Zurbuchen touted the work that’s already being done by NASA’s small satellites — such as IceCUBE, which was launched last year and recently produced the first global map of ice clouds.

During today’s talk, he unveiled the first graphical picture of radar data from RainCube, a CubeSat that was deployed from the International Space Station just last month. RainCube is designed to measure rainfall and other precipitation from orbit.

“We saw this first [radar] bounce, and are really excited about this,” Zurbuchen said. “That by itself is a major breakthrough.”

Other pioneering NASA smallsat missions include the MarCO probes currently on their way to Mars, the HaloSat telescope that aims to study the Milky Way’s hot galactic halo, and the BurstCube nanosatellite that will aim to match up gravitational-wave observations with gamma-ray bursts in the 2020s.

Zurbuchen emphasized that not all space science missions can be done using small satellites. There’s no collection of CubeSats that could do what NASA’s flagship Webb Space Telescope will do. But he said NASA intended to “hitch our wagon” to low-cost, small-scale space missions as well.

“We want to go to Class C and Class D missions … to really have a set of missions that is focused on higher risk with limited budgets,” Zurbuchen said. “By the way, if we only do the flagships … two things happen. First of all, we have all eggs in one basket, and God help us if something happens with that basket. The other thing is, we have leadership today, but not leadership tomorrow. That amazing manager and investigator that’s working on that flagship mission is going to do that, but who’s the next person who’s stepping up?”

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