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NASA readies 10-pound nanosatellite for launch

PharmaSat satellite, shaped like a loaf of bread, begins spacecraft revolution

April 30, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - NASA is set to launch what it's calling a nanosatellite -- a spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread -- next week.

Weighing only 10 pounds, the tiny satellite called PharmaSat is scheduled to lift off on board a U.S. Air Force four-stage Minotaur 1 rocket late on May 5. Once aloft and free of the rocket, the satellite will circle the Earth at 17,000 mph while carrying a micro-laboratory packed with sensors and optical systems.

Bruce Yost, mission manager with NASA's small spacecraft division at the Ames Research Center, told Computerworld that the launch comes at the beginning of a revolution where the size and weight of spacecraft decline steadily but retain much of the capabilities of its larger brethren.

"We've had big monolithic types of spacecraft that have taken a long time to launch," said Yost. "Going smaller gives us more options."

PharmaSat is being launched to help NASA scientists better understand how medications work during space flights. Focusing on antifungal treatments, the microlab on board the satellite is designed to detect the growth, density and health of yeast cells and then send that data back to Earth for analysis. The satellite is also built to monitor the levels of pressure, temperature and acceleration that the yeast and the satellite experience while orbiting the globe.

"PharmaSat is an important experiment that will yield new information about the susceptibility of microbes to antibiotics in the space environment," said David Niesel, PharmaSat's co-investigator from the University of Texas, in a statement. "It also will prove that biological experiments can be conducted on sophisticated autonomous nanosatellites."

The launch comes just days after another NASA satellite, called Swift, and a global team of astronomers detected a 10-second, gamma ray burst from a star that died when the universe was just a baby. The burst, called the "most distant cosmic explosion ever seen," happened when the universe was only 630 million years old.

And earlier this month, NASA researchers reported that satellite observations showed that Arctic sea ice, which acts as the world's air conditioner, continued to shrink this winter as the ice cap grew thinner.

Last year, a team of researchers led by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., had created the first map of sea ice thickness for the entire Arctic basin. The scientists used two years of data compiled from NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, known as ICESat.

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.

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