NASA’s BurstCube Achieves Significant Milestones on Path to Launch

NASA’s BurstCube, a shoebox-sized spacecraft designed to study gamma-ray bursts, has reached significant milestones on its journey to launch. Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have completed testing for the spacecraft and have delivered it to their partner Nanoracks in Houston, Texas, where it will be prepared for launch.

The testing process for BurstCube involved various assessments to ensure its readiness for space. The team characterized its magnetic field, subjected it to extreme temperatures, and simulated the shaking it will experience during launch. These tests are crucial even for a small satellite like BurstCube.

Once in space, BurstCube will search the sky for short gamma-ray bursts, which are brief flashes of the highest-energy form of light. These bursts are created when dense stellar remnants, such as neutron stars, collide with each other or black holes. Understanding these collisions is important as they contribute to the formation of heavy elements in the universe, such as gold and platinum. BurstCube’s mission is to detect and locate these bursts and notify other observatories for further detailed studies. It will join a network of satellites and telescopes working together to observe changes in the universe.

The spacecraft is scheduled for launch in March 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as part of a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

To ensure that BurstCube can withstand the vibrations during launch, the mission team conducted vibration testing at Washington Laboratories in Maryland. The satellite was strapped to a plate and subjected to vibrations at various frequencies. Additionally, the team had to map BurstCube’s own magnetic field using a special facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. This mapping is crucial for the spacecraft to orient itself using Earth’s magnetic field.

BurstCube will also experience significant temperature changes as it orbits, transitioning between daylight and darkness every 90 minutes. To evaluate its performance under these conditions, the team conducted tests in a thermal vacuum chamber at Goddard, where temperatures ranged from minus 4 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to these tests, the team also conducted software and communications checks and ensured that the solar panels will open properly after deployment from the space station.

BurstCube’s completion of testing marks an important milestone for the mission. It provides valuable opportunities for early career scientists and engineers to gain hands-on experience in all aspects of a project. With testing complete, the team and BurstCube are now preparing for the next steps towards launch.