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NASA Using CubeSats to Test Nascent Spacecraft Technology

There probably isn’t a more complex process out there than putting together a spacecraft. No matter the task envisioned for it by Earth-based engineers, a spacecraft is one of the most complex pieces of machinery in exitence. And like most other machinery, they need to be tested very thoroughly.
V-R3x demonstrator tested through PACE 1 photo
The American space agency has one of the most rigorous such programs in existence. Take the Orion capsule that will head for the Moon with humans on board in a few years’ time. Not only is it subjected to hard testing on the ground, but it will also be sent empty to the Moon before actually carrying people there.

The testing procedure goes well beyond just the finished product being given a go. NASA has to put each individual component of a craft through hell before it's assembled, and that is very demanding work.

Luckily, we have CubeSats. These miniature satellites can be used to take spacecraft components to suborbital and orbital altitudes to see how they operate in the environment they are supposed to work in. And their deployment in such a role just got a boost.

The space agency announced in mid-March it will bet even more heavily on such testing and expand the scope of PACE. That is short for Payload Accelerator for CubeSat Endeavors, a program that was designed to “aggressively shorten conventional technology testing timelines.”

NASA already deployed some hardware on PACE CubeSats. Earlier in March, the V-R3x demonstrator was deployed as a means to show new spacecraft techniques for radio networking and navigation. Next up, it will be sent up and tested using them will be a new avionics system. A low-cost, lightweight gamma and neutron particle detector called Intrepid will also get its time in orbit as part of PACE, and the number of CubeSats deployed for this task is only likely to increase.

“The goal of PACE is to fly as many technologies as possible, especially new, potentially risky innovations, and really push the envelope,” said in a statement Anh Nguyen, project manager for PACE at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.

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