How NASA is using these tiny satellites to get ready for the next trip to Mars

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Aug 12, 2015, 5:15 PM EDT

The folks at NASA are always looking for ways to cut costs, and the latest initiative is aiming to shrink experiments into bite-sized, space-faring packages. Welcome to the world of CubeSats.

The small satellites have been in use for a while, seen everywhere from school projects to start-up space companies and at NASA itself. NASA says the small satellites are helping researchers develop the miniaturized technologies needed to reduce unnecessary weight and space aboard crewed spacecraft that could be used for research, life support and other things astronauts will need once they eventually travel to Mars.

By making the experiments, projects and tech smaller — NASA is able to include more weird and wacky stuff on future missions. It’s all about the economies of size and space.

To help encourage creativity and new discoveries, NASA is now giving academic researchers, citizen engineers, scientists and CubeSat developers the opportunity to have their research performed in low-Earth orbit and beyond. These small projects are essentially piggybacking on existing launches to cut costs. It’s all part of the strategic plan to essentially crowd source new discoveries, in the hopes it’ll all lead to a brighter future in the stars. Or, you know, on Mars first.

The culmination of that initiative is NASA's $5 million Cube Quest Challenge, which includes a cash prize and (even cooler) the chance to earn a spot for their CubeSat as a secondary payload on a deep space mission. To succeed, teams must design, build and deliver flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced communications and propulsion near and beyond the moon. The testing phases will look at everything from durability, to space communication from at least 10X the distance from the Earth to the moon.

Welcome to the (very tiny) future.

(Via NASA)

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