NASA’s latest plan? Send out hundreds of tiny satellites to monitor extraterrestrial worlds

nasa cubesat cape program
NASA’s tiny, inexpensive cubesats are great learning tools, but the agency has grander plans for the miniaturized satellites. James Esper, resident technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is spearheading a project that’d see cubesats retrofitted for interplanetary travel.

The project, dubbed CubeSat Application for Planetary Entry Missions (CAPE), envisions a delivery spacecraft capable of delivering cubesats to celestial destinations for scientific research. Comprised of two modules, a service module for transport and a probe for atmospheric re-entry (the Micro-Reentry Capsule, or MIRCA), the vehicle as envisioned is swift and efficient — it weighs less than 11 pounds and measures no more than 4 inches on a side.

It’d theoretically work like this: after reaching its intended target, the spacecraft — “mothership,” if you will — would eject the cubesat from a small canister. The cubesat, operating on an internal battery or solar panels, would then begin to transmit atmospheric data (measurements like pressure, temperature, and chemical composition) to radios on the mothership. After processing and amplification, that data would be sent in turn to monitoring stations on Earth.

Esper’s vision is less far-fetched than it sounds. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia constructed a prototype MIRCA earlier this year, which Esper and his team plans to drop 18.6 miles from a gondola balloon over Fort Sumner, New Mexico this summer. They’ll observe its stability throughout the fall — Esper plans to retrofit the craft with accelerometers, gyroscopes, thermal and pressure sensors, and radiometers. Assuming all goes well, he hopes to drop the MIRCA from the International Space Station as early as 2016.

“The balloon drop of MIRCA will in itself mark the first time a CubeSat [sic] planetary entry capsule is flight tested, not only at Goddard, but anywhere else in the world,” Esper told “That in turn enables new opportunities in planetary exploration not available to date, and represents a game-changing opportunity for Goddard.”

Ultimately, Esper’s hoping to “attract potential partners to provide the rest of the vehicle,” or the service module of the delivery vehicle. If the tests pan out, he may manage to do just that.

Emerging Tech

Just like an eagle, this autonomous glider can fly on thermal currents

Using a type of artificial intelligence which learns based on trial and error, researchers have demonstrated how gliders can glide autonomously on thermal currents, much like an eagle does.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

Amazon Prime brings more perks than just free two-day shipping. Subscribers get access to a huge library of TV shows to stream at no extra cost. Here are our favorite TV shows currently available on Amazon Prime.

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.

Audi’s subscription service lets you roll in style without commitment

Audi expanded its mobility options by launching a car subscription service in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For $1,395, buyers can choose from five models (including the Q7, the Q5, and the A4) and swap cars twice a month.
Emerging Tech

Removing ‘zombie cells’ in the brain could help battle the effects of dementia

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have demonstrated how the removal of so-called "zombie cells" can help reverse the effects of dementia-style cognitive decline in mice. Here's what they did.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s planet hunter satellite gets first hit in its search for another Earth

NASA's planet hunter satellite TESS has discovered a new Earth-like planet. At only 62 light-years distant, the new find is much closer than the Kepler Mission's 2015 exoplanet discovery -- that one was 155 light-years distant.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Click-to-brew beer, comfy headlamps, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

From flying for fun to pro filmmaking, these are the best drones you can buy

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

New mask-mounted head-up display gives Navy combat divers tactical advantage

Divers are often forced to work in low-light conditions where visibility is limited or all-but nonexistent. In order to help solve this problem, the Navy has developed a new head-up display known as Shadow Nav.
Emerging Tech

Roll over, SpotMini — here comes the ALMA robo-dog

If two robo-dogs met on the street, would one try to sniff the mechanical components at the rear of the other? We have no idea, but with at least two different rob-dogs now making real advances, we may soon find out.
Emerging Tech

A Japanese spacecraft just landed two rovers on an asteroid

Japan's space agency has succeeded in landing two rovers on the surface of an asteroid around 200 million miles from Earth. The deployment is part of a bold mission aimed at unlocking some of the mysteries of our solar system.
Emerging Tech

3D-printed gun advocate extradited to Texas to face sex-assault charges

Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, has been arrested in Tawan. U.S. law enforcement have reported that they are working with Taiwanese authorities to have Wilson returned to the U.S. where he faces charges of sexual assault.
Emerging Tech

Eye-tracking tech lets you control a drone by looking where you want it to move

Put down your smartphones and other drone controllers. Researchers have invented a method to allow drone pilots to fly drones using a pair of eye-tracking glasses. What could be simpler?
Emerging Tech

This mirror-wielding robot arm behaves in a freakily lifelike manner

Created by German-based artist Piet Schmidt, this robot arm project will come close to tricking you into thinking it's a real creature, based on its behavior. Check it out in action.