Research at Ames

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Areas of Ames Ingenuity: Low-cost Missions
a collage of smallsat images

About "low-cost missions"

Enabling high value science to low Earth orbit & the moon.


Working On IRIS Spectrometer
Internal components similar to the NASA GeneBox payload.
One of NASA's core missions is the scientific exploration of space, both to learn more about Earth and how the solar system and universe function. NASA has a phenomenal history of space exploration, and Ames has long been part of that legacy. Ames is the agency's lead center for conceiving, implementing and operating low-cost space missions.

As NASA seeks new methods to gather high-value science using advanced technologies and innovative approaches to spacecraft engineering, it must also radically rethink relying upon very large and expensive spacecraft.

Ames has a record of successful low-cost space exploration missions including the $79 million Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) Mission that confirmed the presence of water on the moon in 2009, and the $5 million GeneSat-1 mission to study bacteria in low-earth orbit – missions with budgets representing a tiny fraction the cost of traditional spacecraft.

Ames' role

NASA's Ames Research Center is the lead center within NASA for low-cost space missions. Ames began exploring new concepts for inexpensive Internal components similar to the NASA GeneBox payload in the 1990s using very small shoe-box sized satellites, called nanosats or cubesats, as platforms to collect low-cost, high-impact science. These missions demonstrate that "NASA-quality" scientific research and nanosats - which inexpensively gather key engineering and scientific data - go hand-in-hand. Ames now leads the agency in this area, having flown seven nanosats and is working to fly eleven more in the near future.

Ames also reapplies NASA's small, rapid, low-cost and risk-tolerant engineering approaches to interplanetary spacecraft with missions like the LCROSS lunar impactor and the Lunar Atmospheric Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lunar orbiter (scheduled to launch in 2013), as well as future lunar lander concepts.

Featured example: LADEE - NASA's next lunar mission

What is NASA's next lunar mission looking for and how is Ames doing it cheaper and faster?

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Engineers test an electrical interface on LADEE.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), is a small, low-cost spacecraft which will be launched into orbit around the moon in 2013. LADEE is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon and gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.

This mission, designed and developed at Ames, uses an advanced composite structure and many commercial and off-the-shelf components to enable an interplanetary orbiter at a fraction of the cost of a traditional lunar orbit spacecraft.

Featured example: LCROSS - Finding water on the moon

How did a low-cost Ames mission prove, beyond doubt, the existence of water ice on the moon?

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LRO-based map of the south pole of the moon.
The Lunar CRater Observer and Sensing System (LCROSS) was a low-cost, fast-track mission intended to investigate the possible presence of water ice on the moon. LCROSS was an innovative mission that used the "spent" upper stage of a launch vehicle and a small shepherding spacecraft to impact the permanently-shadowed part of a crater on the south pole of the moon to analyze the material lofted off the lunar surface.

The results of the LCROSS Mission completely changed our understanding of the moon’s composition by discovering a significant amount of water, and dramatically shifted our theories about how the inner solar system was formed.

Featured example: GeneSat-1 - Science from a satellite the size of a loaf of bread

How do you do fully automated, self-contained biological spaceflight experiments for a fraction of the cost of a regular mission?

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GeneSat-1 payload assembly
GeneSat-1 was a radical new approach to enabling high-quality, peer-reviewed science to be achieved using ultra-small nanosats that launch as second-class payloads riding along with a large primary spacecraft and sharing a launch vehicle.

Once in space, the nanosat jettisons away from the primary spacecraft and launch vehicle, then performs science experiments and beams back the data to Earth over a few months to a year before it reenters the atmosphere and burns up. GeneSat-1 engendered a family of Ames-led nanosat missions focused on biological sciences and experiments that never before had been performed in space.