NASA’s mini ASTERIA CubeSat to study exoplanets

April 13 (UPI) — NASA’s ASTERIA mini satellite has proven itself capable of recording images of objects as they transit across the face of nearby Sun-like stars, the agency said this week.

ASTERIA is a CubeSat roughly the size of a cereal box. It weighs just 22 pounds. Launched into low Earth orbit in November, ASTERIA has spent the past several months performing tests — proving that its payload is accurate and spaceworthy.

NASA says the mini satellite has proven its ability to stably focus its payload on a stellar target for an extended period of time. Across several orbits, the CubeSat recorded a pointing stability of 0.5 arcseconds RMS, a measure of the wobbliness of the satellite’s gamer over the course of a 20-minute exposure.

“That’s like being able to hit a quarter with a laser pointer from about a mile away,” Christopher Pong, the attitude and pointing control engineer for ASTERIA at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. “The laser beam has to stay inside the edge of the quarter, and then the satellite has to be able to hit that exact same quarter — or star — over multiple orbits around the Earth. So what we’ve accomplished is both stability and repeatability.”

ASTERIA is designed to hunt for planets using the same strategy as Kepler and NASA’s newest plane-hunter, TESS. The CubeSat records images of bright Sun-like stars. These observations are then analyzed for evidence of periodic dimming, the signature created by orbiting exoplanets as they move across the face of their host star.

Because ASTERIA is small and lightweight, it can hitch a ride on a rocket launching a bigger payload, saving money. It offers astronomers an affordable way to study more stars. The probe could focus on stellar targets ignored by larger satellites and locate targets to be reassessed in greater detail using more powerful instruments.

The probe’s performance is a milestone for NASA; it is one of the first successful astrophysics CubeSat missions.

“ASTERIA is small but mighty,” said Matthew W. Smith, ASTERIA mission manager at JPL. “Packing the capabilities of a much larger spacecraft into a small footprint was a challenge, but in the end we demonstrated cutting-edge performance for a system this size.”