Spaceflight Insider

Nano-satellite launched from space station tests space brake

TechEdSat Exo-brake as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Graphic rendering of TechEdSat–4 with exo-brake deployed. Exo-brake is an aerodynamic specially-designed parachute-like device, that causes the satellite to de–orbit and re–enter Earth's atmosphere. Image and Caption Credit: NASA.

On the afternoon on March 3, the International Space Station deployed a small satellite using its Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer, the first NASA satellite to be thus ejected. TechEdSat-4, as the payload is named, is designed to test new space brake technologies to facilitate the rapid return of payloads to Earth.

Deploying what NASA terms a “second-generation exo-brake” — essentially a fancy parachute designed to produce drag — a payload can be induced to de-orbit faster than other maneuvers can affect. The principal investigator for the project, Marcus Murbach, explains the technology in a recent NASA release:

TechEdSat Satellite as seen on Spaceflight Insider

The TechEdSat series, a technology education collaboration with San Jose State University and the University of Idaho, uses the standard CubeSat structure, which measures one unit (1U) as approximately four inches cubed (10 centimeters cubed). TechEdSat-4 is a 3U satellite. Image and Caption Credit: NASA.

“The exo-brake is a self-stabilizing exospheric deorbiting mechanism that will allow us to return a payload to Earth fairly rapidly from an orbital platform, like the International Space Station,” said Murbach, program manager at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Murbach continued, “We were able to send commands and receive data to and from the satellite via the onboard modem using only a laptop and email account. This capability may greatly benefit the entire nanosatellite community.”

Two and a half hours after initial launch, the small satellite received a command via email to deploy its exo-brake, which is capable of producing drag in the very low-pressure environment of low-Earth orbit.

The satellite’s capacity to receive commands over email is equally significant, part of a suite of communications packages designed to replace the need for ground stations to monitor the health and status of orbiting payloads.

NASA hopes that this technology will not only enable cheaper return of material from orbit, which is currently performed by larger and heavier (and thus more expensive) crafts such as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, but also provide a template for small-scale missions to the surface of other planets. As Murbach explained in the NASA release:

“We’ve already developed a sample canister that during atmospheric re-entry could slip out the back of the satellite and safely be recovered on Earth. This could also be adapted to future Mars satellites as a piggy-back or ride-along payload that could jettison independently and study the mid-latitude or other scientifically interesting regions of Mars. Currently, it is extremely challenging to access these sites.”

TechEdSat-4 is part of a partnership between San Jose State University and the University of Idaho. The satellite, the fourth successful installment, measures 12x4x4 inches (30x10x10 centimeters) and weighs about five pounds. The series has been undergoing orbital tests since 2012 when TechEdSat-1 demonstrated the model’s basic communications capabilities. TechEdSat-5 is scheduled for launch later this year. The model will be roughly comparable to the fourth edition but will feature a more maneuverable exo-brake.

Video courtesy of NASA


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Since 2011 Joshua Tallis has served as the manager for research and analysis at an intelligence and security services provider in Washington, DC. Josh has co-authored several articles in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International with colleagues from the defense community. Previous work experience includes internships at the U.S. Congress and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Josh is also a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews' Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and Special Honors graduate of The George Washington University where he received a BA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs.

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