6U CubeSat to Mars

We’ve been working on Asteroid Prospector, a 6U CubeSat to explore Near Earth Objects, for the past two years. It is quite a challenge to pack all the hardware into a 6U frame. Here is our latest design:



The nadir face has both an Optical Navigation System camera and a JPL designed robot arm. The arm is used to grapple the asteroid and get samples. The camera is used both for interplanetary navigation and close maneuvering near the asteroid.

Our fuel load only allows for one way missions but could be increased for sample return missions by adding another xenon tank, making it more of a 12U CubeSat. With that in mind, we wondered if we could do a Mars orbital mission with our 6U. It turns out it is possible! We would start in a GPS orbit, carried there by one of the many GPS launches. The spacecraft would spiral out of Earth orbit and perform a Hohmann transfer to Mars. Even though we are using a low-thrust ion engine, the burn duration is a small fraction of the Hohmann ellipse time making a Hohmann transfer a good approximation. We then spiral into Mars orbit for the science mission as seen in a VisualCommander simulation.


The low cost of the 6U mission makes it possible to send several spacecraft to Mars, each with its own instrument. This has the added benefit of reducing program risk as the loss of one spacecraft would not end the mission. Many challenges remain, including making the electronics sufficiently radiation hard for the interplanetary and Mars orbit environments. The lifetime of the mechanical components, such as reaction wheels, must also be long enough to last for the duration of the mission.

We’ll keep you posted in future blogs on our progress! Stay tuned!

Asteroid Prospector Orbiting Apophis

Asteroid Prospector is a 6U CubeSat designed to survey asteroids. It uses a Busek Ion engine to spiral out of earth orbit and rendezvous with an asteroid. It then uses its reaction control thruster system, which employ ECAPS green propellant thrusters, to perform near-asteroid operations. Here is a picture of the spacecraft in circular orbit mode.

The simulation is running in our Simulation Framework. The graphical display uses our VisualCommander client on the Mac.

The flight software is implemented in our ControlDeck C++ class library. Both the simulation and control software are available as part of our Aero/Astro vehicle control products.

You can see a movie of the spacecraft on our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvPqwFKGRKw

We presented our Asteroid Prospector mission concept on Tuesday Aug 13th, 2013  the Small Satellites Conference in Logan, Utah in Session VI: Strength in Numbers. A copy of our paper is available here.

Visit to the Canadian Space Agency

I visited the Canadian Space Agency in St Hubert Canada on Tuesday, August 27 to give a talk on our Asteroid Prospector Spacecraft. The talk was fun and we had a great discussion on the challenges of near asteroid operations and building small interplanetary spacecraft.

After the talk Dr. Alfred Ng gave us a tour of the facility. Here I am with my wife and son standing in front of Dextre and Canadarm.


You can see Dextre to the left. The Canadarm is the to the right. Both are in operation on the ISS. Dextre is used for many of the tasks formerly done by astronauts during EVAs.

Here I am with our host Dr. Alfred Ng:


We saw the MOST satellite, a small astronomy satellite. It has a mass of only 60 kg. It can stare at a star for up to 7 days!

MOST is an excellent example of how a small satellite can do big science! We were very impressed with all of the amazing engineering and science being done at the Canadian Space Agency and hope to continue collaborating with them in the future!

SmallSat Conference in the Cache Valley!

PSS attended the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah, Aug 12-15. The conference site, on the campus of Utah State University, couldn’t have been more beautiful!
View from the SmallSat venue, Logan Utah

The technical program, conference organization, and venue were all outstanding!  I bumped into several PSS MATLAB Toolbox customers and representatives from companies PSS has teamed with on past projects.

SmallSat signs guiding the way!

I also had the pleasure of connecting with a number of new companies and teams working on advanced small satellite projects. We presented our Asteroid Prospector paper as part of the Strength in Numbers Session. The presentation was well received and we had a number of individuals express interest and provide feedback on the concept afterwards.

Amanda on the last day of the conference

On Wednesday evening, I was able to take advantage of the organized group activities and participated in the hike in Logan Canyon. It was a great week! Hope to see you all again next year!