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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tiny Spacecraft Could Help NASA Find Unmapped Planets

CAMBRIDGE,MA - Draper Laboratory and MIT are planning to demonstrate the ability to use nanosatellites to search for unmapped planets with the launch of ExoPlanetSat in 2012.

ExoPlanetSat is just 10 centimeters tall, 10 cm wide and 30 cm long, and will complement existing planet-hunters like NASA’s Kepler space telescope and ground-based assets. It gives NASA the ability to dedicate relatively inexpensive assets to stare at a star for long periods of time to look for transits – decreases in brightness that suggest a previously unmapped Earth-like planet passed between the viewer and the star.

Exoplanets are planets orbiting stars other than the sun.

In order to gain reliable data, the ExoPlanetSat’s imager is required to keep the target star in the same fraction of a pixel during its observations. Draper’s expertise in optics, guidance, navigation and control technology is being applied to develop a sub-arc-second (1/3600th of a degree) pointing and stabilization system for ExoPlanetSat.

ExoPlanetSat has demonstrated the pointing requirements needed for this task during laboratory testing.

NASA recently awarded a launch to the program as part of its Cubesat Launch Initiative.

Draper is funding the program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of the Laboratory’s effort to develop advanced technology in the national interest while creating hands-on educational opportunities that help groom the next generation of engineering and science leaders. The MIT students are led by Prof. Sara Seager, who is also a participating scientist on the Kepler mission.

The students recently came in second in the Nano-satellite Mission Idea Contest, which was hosted by Axel Space of Japan and the University of Tokyo and looked for new ways to provide capabilities via tiny satellites.

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