Imaging in space is necessary to prevent atmospheric aberration/interference. But scientific and astrophysics research space missions have traditionally been extremely costly, long-life missions funded by government programmes, making this research in space an exclusive activity so far. This is due to the sensitivity of the sensors that are typically used on these missions. To image stars that are lightyears away, the instruments need to be able to distinguish between very small levels of brightness, so the sensor plane must have a well-controlled thermal environment. These satellites also have precise pointing requirements to ensure they are imaging the intended objects. The size of satellites is normally dictated by the payload, and telescopes on these missions are usually large to maximise the spatial resolution while imaging far away. All these features combined meant that instruments were housed by large satellites that cost multiple millions to deploy.
NASA is working on fixing this problem. According to SpaceNews, NASA has a $5m a year budget towards supporting the development of CubeSats for astrophysics missions. The developments in CubeSats and space technologies in the past decade, have made it more accessible to run astrophysics missions at a cheaper cost. NASA JPL launched the CubeSat; Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics, or ASTERIA from the ISS on November 2017 in order to test their viability for such missions. JPL reported that the ASTERIA mission was a success and that it had surpassed its goals with respect to pointing and thermal management. The government acceptance presents a massive leap for astrophysics and presents new opportunities in the industry. It is great to see that Cubesats are overcoming their pitfalls that will hopefully see them more widely adopted for a variety of applications.
ASTERIA (Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics) is a technology demonstration and opportunistic science mission to conduct astrophysical measurements using a CubeSat. ASTERIA is the first JPL-built CubeSat to have been successfully operated in space.