Space Flight Laboratory wins contract for two small spacecraft

Artist’s rendering of the NASA Aspera astrophysics mission. Credit: University of Arizona.

Toronto based Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) has won contracts for two NASA Astrophysics Pioneers Program spacecraft, the StarBurst and Aspera missions.

SFL stated in a press release that “will provide the spacecraft platforms, perform system integration, and conduct system testing for the StarBurst and Aspera astrophysics missions, led by Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and the University of Arizona, respectively.” SFL will also “support the launch, commissioning, and operation of StarBurst and Aspera, which are tentatively scheduled for launch in 2025.”

The NASA Astrophysics Pioneers Program was created in 2020 to “to develop small-scale astrophysics missions using small satellites, balloons, and modest International Space Station payloads to explore cosmic phenomena – each at a maximum mission cost of $20 million.”

According to SFL it was selected in 2021 “to complete platform concept designs for two of the four first-round Astrophysics Pioneers missions.” Those designs were for the StarBurst and Aspera missions.

The StarBurst mission “is a SmallSat that will detect high-energy gamma rays from events such as the mergers of dense stellar remnants called neutron stars. This would provide valuable insight into such events, which are also detected through gravitational waves by observatories on Earth. These events are where most of the heavy metals in the universe, such as gold and platinum, are formed. To date, only one such event has been observed simultaneously in gravitational waves and gamma-rays; StarBurst would find up to 10 per year. The principal investigator is Daniel Kocevski of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.”

The 250 kg StarBurst platform is new platform being developed by SFL using an ESPA-Grande variant of its scalable DAUNTLESS bus.

Artist’s conception of the NASA StarBurst astrophysics mission. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
Artist’s conception of the NASA StarBurst astrophysics mission. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

According to NASA the “Aspera is a SmallSat that will study galaxy evolution. Through observations in ultraviolet light, it will examine hot gas in the space between galaxies, called the intergalactic medium, and the inflow and outflow of gas from galaxies. The intergalactic medium is a major component of the universe, but is poorly measured; Aspera would close this gap. The principal investigator is Carlos Vargas at the University of Arizona.”

For the 60 kg Aspera mission SFL will use a “larger variant of its scalable DEFIANT microsatellite platform.”

Artist’s rendering of the NASA Aspera astrophysics mission. Credit: University of Arizona.
Artist’s rendering of the NASA Aspera astrophysics mission. Credit: University of Arizona.

SFL Director Dr. Robert E. Zee. said, “Following the system requirements reviews, NASA has given approval to both MSFC and the University of Arizona to proceed with mission implementation. SFL is proud to contribute to both teams moving forward with development of the ground-breaking StarBurst and Aspera missions. Our microspace approach to building high-performance, affordable smaller satellites aligns perfectly with NASA’s goal of finding cost-effective new ways to conduct astrophysics research.”

The other missions selected by NASA for the Astrophysics Pioneers Program were:

  • Pandora is a SmallSat that will study 20 stars and their 39 exoplanets in visible and infrared light. It is aimed at disentangling the signals from stars and planetary atmospheres. Understanding how changes in starlight affects measurements of exoplanets is an outstanding problem in the search for habitable planets beyond the solar system. The principal investigator is Elisa Quintana of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • PUEO is a balloon mission designed to launch from Antarctica that will detect signals from ultra-high energy neutrinos, particles that contain valuable clues about the highest energy astrophysical processes, including the creation of black holes and neutron star mergers. Neutrinos travel across the universe undisturbed, carrying information about events billions of light years away. PUEO would be the most sensitive survey of cosmic ultra-high energy neutrinos ever conducted. The principal investigator is Abigail Vieregg of the University of Chicago.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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