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Interplanetary CubeSats: Opening the Solar System to a Broad Community at Lower Cost
Robert Staehle
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Today, Solar System exploration missions are the exclusive domain of space agencies and their scientists and engineers who can muster multi-hundred-million dollar budgets. While their accomplishments are broad, highly sophisticated and literally out of this world, the high cost limits our pace of important discoveries.

Interplanetary CubeSats offer an opportunity to conduct focused science investigations around the inner Solar System at a cost ten times lower than missions mounted today. In much the same way that CubeSats weighing a few pounds have dramatically increased low cost access to space experimentation in low Earth orbit, this study intends to focus development of six technologies in unison so as to enable dramatically lower-cost exploration of the Solar System and our Earth’s more distant environs. Using the pressure of sunlight, a gravitationally defined Interplanetary Superhighway, advanced electronics and instrumentation, and laser communications, may extend the turn-of-the-millennium CubeSat standard for nanosatellites to distances far beyond Earth’s magnetic cocoon. CubeSats in low Earth orbit have enabled dozens of universities to develop and place in orbit student-led, student-designed, student-built, and student-operated satellites investigating all manner of scientifically exciting phenomena, while giving graduates of these programs a competitive edge they bring to American technology and industry. Additionally, CubeSats have enabled Government-sponsored space experimentation and technology development on an accelerated schedule for unprecedented low cost. If successful, this system study of the technologies to enable Interplanetary CubeSats will open the door to a similar revolution in access to space and new discoveries beyond Earth.