Where no CubeSat

Where no CubeSat

  • ESA

  • Space in Images

M-Argo is designed as ESA’s first CubeSat to enter interplanetary space.

Studied in the Concurrent Design Facility , ESA’s highly networked facility for designing novel missions, the ’Miniaturised Asteroid Remote Geophysical Observer’, or M-Argo, is a nanospacecraft based on the CubeSat design employing standardised 10 cm cubic units within which electronic boards can be stacked and subsystems attached.

M-Argo would be a 12-unit CubeSat - with a 22 x 22 x 34 cm body - that would hitch a ride on the launch of a larger space mission whose trajectory takes it beyond Earth orbit, such as astronomy missions to a Sun-Earth Lagrange point.

The CubeSat would then use its own electric thruster to take it into deep space and rendezvous with an asteroid, which it would survey using a multispectral camera and a laser altimeter. Other miniaturised payloads are also being considered.

ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team has identified a total of 83 near-Earth asteroids suitable for a CubeSat rendezvous. The study prioritised spinning bodies of around 50 m diameter as a never-before explored class of asteroid, although the target list also includes larger bodies of up to 300 m.

"For now, M-Argo is just a concept, but provides us very valuable information about technology developments that we need to put in place for a flight demonstration in the near future," comments Roger Walker, overseeing ESA’s Technology CubeSats.

"It would cost around a tenth of the smallest deep-space mission to date, democratising space exploration beyond Earth, bringing it into the reach of new actors, in the same way low-Earth orbit has already been opened up by CubeSats.

"Each time we survey a new asteroid, our understanding of these small bodies has been transformed. With such a cost reduction, we could send 10 to 20 CubeSats to scout different asteroids and build up a wide survey of the near-Earth population, getting to know the neighbours better for the purposes of science and identifying potential in-situ resources for future exploitation."

The next step is to undertake supporting research and development through ESA’s General Support Technology Programme , which is tasked with developing promising technologies for space , and identifying a suitable piggyback launch opportunity.

To become reality, M-Argo would require miniaturised solar electric propulsion, a flat array antenna to boost radio signal gain and an X-band transponder to support communication and ranging to the ground stations back on Earth, as a means of deep-space navigation.