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Monday, June 16, 2014

NASA Taps Draper for Low Cost Concept that Could Accelerate Planetary Exploration Using Cold Atom Technology, ChipSats

CAMBRIDGE, MA-- Draper Laboratory is developing a low-cost concept for NASA that could accelerate the space agency’s ability to explore other planets by combining orbiting survey missions and follow-on landing studies into a single mission.

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program announced on June 5 that it had awarded Draper a $100,000 contract to study the concept of using cold atom sensing technology to enable a cubesat to take gravity measurements over Jupiter’s moon Europa to spot areas of interest – like water – and then eject a batch of tiny ChipSats to land and take close observations and samples on the surface.

NIAC selects proposals based on the concepts’ potential “to transform future aerospace missions, enable new capabilities, or significantly alter and improve current approaches,” according to the NIAC website.

Draper envisions the spacecraft as being approximately three feet long. The high accuracy, cold atom inertial sensors would enable advanced detection capability in a small, low-cost package. Draper is also developing cold atom inertial sensors for other applications.

Gravity measurements today are generally taken by two spacecraft flying near a planetary body. As the body’s gravitational forces pull on them, the relative drift between the two spacecraft is measured. These measurements are then used to map the gravitational field of the planetary body’s surface, which can be used to look for water and other items of interest that inform planning for future missions that may take place years later.

Draper is working with Mason Peck, an engineering professor at Cornell University, to study the viability of using ChipSats, which have not been used for planetary surface exploration, but may be well suited for the task as their lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface. The low cost of ChipSats could also enable NASA to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact.

“This is a great example of the innovation funded by NIAC – utilizing the emerging capabilities of small space system to perform adaptive, event-driven, regional-scale science,” said John West, who leads advanced concepts and technology development in Draper’s space systems group.

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