NASA May Move Microsatellites Magnetically

NASA earlier this month entered an agreement with Arx Pax to use its Magnetic Field Architecture technology in hardware that will let astronauts move tiny satellites without touching them.

The Space Act Agreement marks a major milestone for Arx Pax, CEO Greg Henderson said. “It’s exciting to work hand in hand with NASA’s brilliant team of scientists and engineers. We’re thrilled about the potential impact we can make together.”

Henderson and his wife, Jill Henderson, last year launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund development of a functional hoverboard based on the technology.

Magnets in Space?

NASA has been seeking to create a magnetic tether that can be used to couple and uncouple microsatellites called “CubeSats.”

It’s interested in exploring whether this tech can be used in a space environment, said Luke Murchison, a project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

NASA in the near term will work to identify the constraints of the magnetic tether technology with regard to its applications in low-Earth orbit, he said.

“In the long term, we are interested in developing technology to allow the autonomous assembly of small modular satellites,” Murchison told TechNewsWorld. “That would let us create entirely new satellite architectures.”

Building Blocks

CubeSats are a small form factor for satellites, said Alex Saunders, a student working at the CubeSat Lab at California Polytechnic State University.

“They come in small 10-by-10-centimeter cubes, and they can be used for a variety of things,” he told TechNewsWorld. “A lot of them are used for tech demos in space.”

A tech firm will reach out to CubeSat researchers to test prototypes of their products in space, said Saunders. They’ll put them on a CubeSat, “and we’ll get data back to them so that they can say they tested it in space.”

Along with launching tech demos into space, CubeSats also are used to conduct scientific experiments in space.

“One of the projects we’ve worked on here at Cal Poly is ExoCubes, where we put a small mass spectrometer in space and are reading ions and neutral data for certain particles at a certain level in our atmosphere,” noted Saunders.

Coupling and uncoupling CubeSats using Magnetic Field Architecture would make a good tech demo and could serve as an important step to scaling up, he said.

Building It Out

Someday, larger satellites even could use magnetic tethering to dock or undock with space stations, Langley’s Murchison suggested. This just the start of MFA’s use in space. NASA plans to iterate on the tech through its alliance with Arx Pax.

“We are currently developing a number of prototypes over the next one to two years,” he added, “and will be exploring alternative designs with this technology.”

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