Spaceflight Insider

Astronomy satellite deployed by JPL

The Asteria satellite is deployed from the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

The Asteria satellite is deployed from the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

With research dollars and room on launch vehicles at a premium, the miniaturization of payloads has become an ever-more used means in which researchers and those seeking to prove out their technologies can fly in space. The ASTERIA CubeSat that was recently deployed from the International Space Station could serve to further validate the emerging technology for astronomy purposes.

It is hoped that the flight of this miniature spacecraft will, over the course of the next few months, help to confirm that the Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA) can precisely measure changes in the light of a star. The project’s Principal Investigator is Sara Seager from the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and these methodologies are those used to discover distant worlds.

“One of the biggest engineering challenges has been fitting the pointing and thermal control electronics into such a small package,” said JPL’s Matthew Smith, ASTERIA’s lead systems engineer and mission manager. “Typically, those components alone are larger than our entire spacecraft. Now that we’ve miniaturized the technology for ASTERIA, it can be applied to other CubeSats or small instruments.” 

Fleets of these tiny spacecraft might also be used, astronomically-speaking, to explore the distant reaches of the universe. Precision is also a key consideration in the development of this technology as these craft have to be able to perceive the slight fading of light as an exoplanet passes in front of its parent star. This is no easy feat as space-based telescopes have to adjust for internal errors, while at the same time carrying out measurements via precision photometry, a field that measures the flux, or intensity, of an object’s light.

“CubeSats offer a relatively inexpensive means to test new technologies,” said Amanda Donner of JPL, mission assurance manager for ASTERIA. “The modular design of CubeSats also makes them customizable, giving even a small group of researchers and students access to space.” 

While the public has become used to seeing satellites being deployed, the long process to get them from the pad and into the sky – is something that is frequently overlooked.

“We designed, built, tested and delivered ASTERIA, and now we’re flying it,” Donner said via an agency-issued release. “JPL takes the training approach of learning-by-doing seriously.” 

While hearing that NASA / JPL has deployed a Cubesat might not seem like that great of a feat for the agency that landed men on the Moon, the fact that the satellite launched from the ISS was, in essence, a technology demonstrator. On top of that, many of the team members, according to Donner, have only been out of college for about five years. 

ASTERIA is part of the Phaeton Program managed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California which was instituted so as to provide college students with the opportunity to learn from experienced engineers and rocket scientists about what is actually required to send payloads to space. JPL collaborates with MIT on this project.





Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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