Draper’s ChipSat Research Could Make Stamp-Sized Spacecraft Functional for Interstellar Mission
CAMBRIDGE, MA – Chip-sized spacecraft will be beamed about 25 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri within 20 years of launch – a mission that would otherwise take 30,000 years – thanks to an engineering project sponsored by the Breakthrough Starshot team. Since 2010, Draper and Cornell University have collaborated on research into spacecraft that could be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and dubbed “ChipSats.” While ChipSats are small and inexpensive to launch, they face challenges far different from those of larger spacecraft and require a completely different approach to space missions.
Due to their tiny size, ChipSats experience disturbances in space in a different manner from large spacecraft. Much like a dinghy is greatly affected by waves that cannot move an oil tanker, the importance of small environmental forces, such as solar radiation pressure and aerodynamic drag, is magnified for ChipSats. This represents a challenge for completing the journey to Alpha Centauri and pointing precisely to send data back to Earth. But it is also an opportunity for developing new guidance and control approaches that take advantage of the environment.
Draper is addressing these issues as it develops ChipSats for a proposed mission to explore Europa, with funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) branch. “Traditional spacecraft mission architectures minimize risk while maximizing redundancy,” said Brett Streetman, who leads Draper’s ChipSat work. “The small size and low cost of ChipSats offer an opportunity to accept far more risk, as you only need a small percentage of them to survive the mission, so you can pack critical space exploration capabilities into a tiny package.”
The Europa mission uses a CubeSat that could scan the Jovian moon to detect areas that may have the thinnest ice and then send hundreds of ChipSats to look for signs of life below the surface. Draper is applying expertise in areas including spacecraft mission design, micropackaging, and transitioning university research into operational prototypes as it develops ChipSats. Field tests of workable prototypes could begin as early as 2019, potentially helping pave the way for the systems that could be used in the Alpha Centauri concept decades later.
Draper has demonstrated the technology solutions needed to address pointing and stabilization challenges across spacecraft of many scales, from attitude control algorithms for the International Space Station to small attitude control instruments such as the Inertial Stellar Compass.
Other recent examples of Draper’s space expertise that could be applied to the Alpha Centauri mission include the development of guidance and navigation software that helped NASA’s Orion spacecraft return to Earth successfully during a 2014 flight test, and development of guidance, navigation and control technology for Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft that NASA uses to resupply the International Space Station.