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HONOLULU — A tiny satellite studying alien worlds may be gone for good, but during the two years the spacecraft operated, it laid the foundation for what may become a new way of finding exoplanets.
The Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics satellite (ASTERIA) fell silent in December 2019, NASA announced Jan. 3. Although NASA has said that it will continue trying to contact the spacecraft until March, scientists on the project looked back on ASTERIA's legacy at the 235th American Astronomical Society conference, held here last week. The satellite, which launched in 2017, was designed to determine whether small cubesats could manage the sort of technically precise measurements required by scientists looking for distant planets.
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"ASTERIA's special because it set out to prove that cubesats could be more than toys, that they could do cutting-edge astrophysics," Mary Knapp, project scientist for ASTERIA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told Space.com.
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That was a far cry from how the science community viewed cubesats when the team began developing ASTERIA. "When we were getting started, cubesats were kind of a new thing, but they were considered educational," Knapp said. "They were for engineering students to learn what's in a spacecraft and take a shot at putting one together, without any expectation that they would actually work."
But the team behind ASTERIA thought cubesats had more potential than that. In 2008, Sara Seager, an astronomer at MIT, envisioned a fleet of cubesats each dedicated to monitoring a single star for exoplanets; that concept eventually became the ASTERIA satellite, and Seager remains the advisory principal investigator.
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In order to turn her vision into a spacecraft, the engineers involved in ASTERIA needed to develop better technology for steadily pointing small satellites and maintaining stable temperature conditions. A particularly important improvement was a...
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