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Suitcase size ASTERIA breaks record for smallest satellite to detect an exoplanet



KEY POINTS

  • CubeSat ASTERIA is about the size of a small suitcase
  • A new study described how ASTERIA broke the record for the smallest satellite to detect an exoplanet
  • This mission demonstrated how small satellites can also perform complex puzzles

A satellite-sized satellite from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) broke the record for the smallest spacecraft to detect an exoplanet.

The Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research In Astrophysics (ASTERIA) is a CubeSat space telescope about the size of a suitcase of 10 cm x 20 cm x 30 cm and weighs 10 kilos. It was mainly a technology demonstration that was not intended for scientific purposes. However, in a study, published in the Astronomical Journal, ASTERIA showed how much a small satellite can do by detecting exoplanet 55 Cancri e, demonstrating how valuable the small spacecraft can be.

Launched in August 201

7 and distributed from the International Space Station months later in November, ASTERIA conducted what scientists called "opportunistic" observations, including those of the exoplanet, during their main mission from November 2017 to February 2018 and also during the first extended mission from Mars to May 2018.

 ASTERIA Before launch Electrical test Engineer Esha Murty and integration and test Lead Cody Colley who prepared ASTERIA Cubesat in 2017 before it was launched. ASTERIA is about the size of a suitcase. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech

As part of the mission, ASTERIA 55 Cancri discovered using the transit method, demonstrating fine point control, the ability to stay steady and focus on a specific object for an extended period of time. Scientists use the transit method to detect planets by looking for falls in the brightness of a star.

To do this, the spaceship must remain steady and focused on the star for a long time, because vibrations or movements can result in "jiggles" that can be interpreted as errors that dip into the brightness.

"This is the first discovery of an exoplanet transport by a CubeSat," the authors wrote. "The successful detection of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e demonstrates that small, inexpensive spacecraft can deliver high-precision photometric measurements."

  Exoplanet 55 Cancri e An artist's concept for the super-Earth exoplanet Cancri e, which probably has an atmosphere thicker than the Earth's. One face of the planet always faces its parent star, while another side always faces away. Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech

To be clear, 55 Cancrie's location was already known to scientists. The task of ASTERIA was to see if it can perform fine point control, which it did. The feat is even more impressive since 55 Cancri e only blocks 0.04% of the light from its parent star, making it a particularly difficult target.

Earlier, 55 Cancri e was also discovered by the Canadian Space Agency's micro-variability and Oscillations of Stars (MEST) satellite, which discovered the exoplanet in 2011. MOST is six times larger than ASTERIA, but is still considered "incredibly small" for an astrophysics- satellite, according to a NASA JPL news release.

"We were pursuing a hard target with a small telescope that was not even optimized to make scientific detections – and we got it, even if only barely," said study director and ASTERIA project scientist, Mary Knapp, in the news paper . "I think this article validates the concept that motivated the ASTERIA mission: that small spacecraft can contribute something to astrophysics and astronomy."

Although small satellites like ASTERIA cannot replace much larger and complex satellites like NASA's TESS, what ASTERIA demonstrated showed how smaller spacecraft can support the larger satellites' missions. For example, after a larger observatory detects a previously undiscovered exoplanet, a smaller satellite may take its place in looking at it so that the larger observatory can move on to other missions.

"This assignment has mostly been about learning," study co-author and scientific data analysis are leading for ASTERIA, said Akshata Krishnamurthy. "We've discovered so many things that future small satellites could do better because we first demonstrated the technology and features. I think we've opened doors."


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