NASA's tiny steam-powered CubeSats successfully 'talk' in space

NASA currently has two tiny CubeSats located in low-Earth orbit, both powered by steam and about the size of an ordinary tissue box. These small satellites recently established a link with each other while miles apart, ultimately resulting in one CubeSat successfully instructing the other on how to maneuver itself.

A CubeSat is a cube-shaped miniature satellite that is typically inexpensive to construct and easy to deploy. Many of these CubeSats can be found in low-Earth orbit for a variety of purposes, including ones created by higher education institutions for academic projects. NASA has two CubeSats in low-Earth orbit as part of its Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration mission.

The mission reached a new milestone on June 21, according to NASA, which says it demonstrated for the first time that one CubeSat in low-Earth orbit can be used to coordinate the maneuver of a different CubeSat. To do this, the space agency had one of the CubeSats link with the other using radio frequency to establish a communications 'cross-link.' The CubeSats were located 5.5 miles from each other when this took place.

Once linked, which enabled the two satellites to 'talk' with each other, one CubeSat sent a command to the other, instructing it to activate its thrusters in order to maneuver the two CubeSats closer together. A water tank on the satellite activated to produce steam, which essentially spurted the tiny spacecraft in the intended direction.

In the future, NASA says that maneuvers may be planned using onboard processing with a CubeSat, enabling it to issue commands to other satellites for CubeSat group control. The capability may prove particularly useful in CubeSats designed for missions beyond Earth's orbit.