NASA is seeking proposals from developers -- specifically NASA centers, U.S. nonprofits, and academia -- interested in creating a class of nanosatellites, called CubeSats, for missions launching between 2014 and 2017.
CubeSats, as the name implies, are cube-shaped research spacecraft that measure approximately four inches long and weigh less than three pounds. According to NASA, small satellites are especially helpful in testing emerging technologies and commercial off-the-shelf components that might be used for future space missions.
They also cost less to develop. NASA's CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI) is a project designed around these miniature satellites. The space agency uses previously planned missions to fly CubeSats as supplementary cargoes on rockets.
[ What's next for the space program? Read NASA's Next 5 Missions, Explored. ]
The proposals for upcoming missions are due on Nov. 26, from which NASA will make its selection by Feb. 7. The submissions must be "consistent with NASA's strategic plan and educational vision and goals," the space agency said. They must also address specific aspects of science, exploration, technology development, education or operations.
NASA will provide integration and other services to the selected developers, but not funding. "Collaborators will be responsible for securing funding to support the development of their CubeSat payload and for all other costs incurred by the collaborator," NASA said in a solicitation document.
The first CubeSats were launched in June 2003 from Russia. NASA became one of the leading government developers in the U.S., using CubeSats to conduct research in space. The first successful CubeSat launch in the U.S. was GeneSat-1, which lifted off on Dec. 16, 2006, as a secondary payload on an Air Force rocket. GeneSat was carrying bacteria inside a miniature laboratory in order to help scientists understand how space flight affects the human body.
Since then, NASA has been collaborating with the industry and local universities to develop CubeSats. Students apply for launch opportunities through NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNA) program. Schools that have been selected by NASA include Cornell University, University of California at Berkeley and Virginia Tech University, where students receive systems integration and hands-on experience building satellites. Of the selected CubeSats, 12 satellites have already launched, and 21 CubeSats are expected to take off later this year.
NASA nanosatellites are used for various space missions, including biology experiments, and to test advanced propulsion and communications technologies. In April, NASA successfully launched into space three satellites consisting mainly of smartphones aboard a rocket. Each of these nanosatellites, known as PhoneSats, cost $3,500 to construct. PhoneSat 1.0 was built using HTC Nexus One and PhoneSat 2.0 was powered by Samsung Nexus S.