NASA Has Lost Contact With Its Tiny Planet-Hunting Satellite

ASTERIA being tested in April 2017 prior to spacecraft delivery ahead of launch. ASTERIA was deployed from the International Space Station in November 2017. NASA/JPL-Caltech

For about a month, NASA has lost contact with one of its missions, known as ASTERIA, a satellite whose function was to discover new planets outside the Solar System. ASTERIA is a CubeSat, a briefcase-sized spacecraft, and was deployed into Earth’s orbit on November 20, 2017.

Mission operators haven't had contact with the spacecraft since last December 5 and they will continue to try to reestablish communication through March. While its operational life might have come to an end, ASTERIA delivered a huge amount of data over the last two and a bit years.

"The ASTERIA project achieved outstanding results during its three-month prime mission and its nearly two-year-long extended mission," Lorraine Fesq, current ASTERIA program manager, said in a statement. "Although we are disappointed that we lost contact with the spacecraft, we are thrilled with all that we have accomplished with this impressive CubeSat."

ASTERIA stands for Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics. The mission was a proof of concept to show that the tech needed for the discovery of exoplanets can be shrunk down to fit into small satellites. The idea is that eventually, other CubeSats like ASTERIA will assist flagship planet hunter missions such as NASA's incredible Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS), the successor of the equally successful Kepler.

ASTERIA has a variety of achievements under its belt. The spacecraft was used to test certain autonomous capabilities of CubeSats and determine how AI can be used to run such missions. It also took images of Earth, a comet, and satellites in geosynchronous orbit. It even looked at stars that might have planets but that data is still being analyzed so we are yet to confirm any detection from this CubeSat.

ASTERIA used the transit method to discover new planets. This approach involves a telescope measuring the light of a star many times and then recording dips in its light. These dips indicate that a planet might be blocking some of the starlight. To confirm the existence of a planet several of these dips must be found, so the telescope goes back to the same star over and over again.

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