The efforts by NSF’s Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division (AGS) to support student CubeSats have engendered an enormous amount of interest from universities and partner institutions. As of October 2011, eight CubeSat projects were underway. Launches have been scheduled (between 2011-2013) for all but two of the projects. NASA’s ELaNA program is instrumental in obtaining launch opportunities and serves as a model for other small-satellite projects discussed by the survey.
All of the projects have been deemed by peer review to have well-defined, important science objectives and to provide unique data sets. All involve entirely new flight hardware and carry the promise of precedent-setting measurements. The limitations imposed by the small platforms demand a high degree of technical innovation in terms of power, control, storage, and downlink. CubeSats provide a unique platform for technological innovation whereby technical readiness can be developed to levels appropriate for application on larger spacecraft. Furthermore, most of the CubeSat hardware is designed, built, and tested by student teams under faculty and professional engineering supervision. Students in fact participate in every aspect of a CubeSat project.
Each CubeSat project requires approximately $0.4 million of funding annually. NSF is targeting a continuous queue of six CubeSat projects, with two new starts and two launches each year. This plan will require approximately $2.5 million of sustained annual funding. Current AGS budgets allow for approximately $1.5 million annually. There is therefore a shortfall of about $1 million per year.
The CubeSat program has clearly moved beyond its initial trial phase and has demonstrated great success, particularly in areas of education. As described in Chapter 4 in the “Diversify” recommendations of DRIVE, the survey committee believes that the program deserves its own line of funding at the level necessary to sustain two starts per year. The committee also recommends specific metrics to be employed for assessing the adequacy of the size of the program going forward. The committee is enthusiastic about the prospects of the CubeSat program for contributing to technology development as well as basic research.
As recommended in Chapter 4 in the “Educate” component of DRIVE, the committee endorses the continuation of the successful NSF Faculty Development in Space Sciences (FDSS) program, as well as the development of a complementary curriculum development program. The committee also recommends that 4-year institutions of higher education should be considered eligible for FDSS awards as a means to further broaden and diversify the field, subject to the burden of proof that program objectives pertaining to research education are achievable by the proposing institution. As existing FDSS awards come to term, the program is expected to change, with new awards being staggered to avoid boom-bust faculty hiring cycles. The number of junior faculty in the FDSS queue will likely remain the same, and so the burden on other AGS programs will also remain constant.
The NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program is an excellent means to attract talented undergraduates to the field, and the committee has endorsed it in the “Educate” component of DRIVE, along with the various summer school offerings supported by NSF. Currently, these include the annual Polar Aeronomy and Radio Science (PARS) summer school, the AMISR school on incoherent scatter, and CISM. The total allocation for these schools is $200,000 per year. Additional schools take place at the