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5 Min Read The CUTE Mission: Innovative Design EnablesObservations of Extreme Exoplanets from a SmallPackage
Fig 1: Artist’s concept of the CUTE mission on-orbit. CUTE has been operating in a 560 km sun-synchronous orbit since September 2021. Credits:
NASA Of the approximately 5,500 exoplanets discovered to date, many have been found to orbit very close to their parent stars. These close-in planets provide a unique opportunity to observe in detail the phenomena critical to the development and evolution of our own solar system, including atmospheric mass loss and interactions with the host star. NASA’s Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) mission, launched in September 2021, employed a new design that enabled exploration of these processes using a small spacecraft for the first time. CUTE provides unique spectral diagnostics that trace the escaping atmospheres of close-in, ultra-hot, giant planets. In addition, CUTE’s dedicated mission architecture enables the survey duration required to characterize atmospheric structure and variability on these worlds.
Atmospheric escape is a fundamental process that affects the structure, composition, and evolution of many planets. It has operated on all of the terrestrial planets in our solar system and likely drives the demographics of the short-period planet population characterized by NASA’s Kepler mission. In fact, atmospheric escape ultimately may be the determining factor when predicting the habitability of temperate, terrestrial exoplanets. Escaping exoplanet atmospheres were first observed in the hydrogen Lyman-alpha line (121nm) in 2003. However, contamination by neutral hydrogen in both the intervening interstellar medium and Earth’s upper atmosphere makes obtaining high-quality Lyman-alpha transit measurements for most exoplanets very challenging. By contrast, a host star’s near-ultraviolet (NUV; 250 – 350 nm) flux is two to three orders of magnitude higher than Lyman-alpha, and transit light curves can be measured against a smoother stellar surface intensity distribution.
This knowledge motivated a team led by Dr. Kevin France at the University of Colorado Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics to design the CUTE mission (Fig 1). The team proposed the CUTE concept to NASA through the ROSES/Astrophysics Research and Analysis (APRA) Program in February 2016 and NASA funded the project in July 2017. The CUTE instrument pioneered use of two technologies on a small space mission: a novel, rectangular Cassegrain telescope (20cm × 8cm primary mirror) and a miniature, low-resolution spectrograph operating from approximately 250 – 330 nm. The rectangular telescope was fabricated to accommodate the unique instrument volume of the 6U CubeSat form factor, an adaptation that delivers approximately three times the collecting area of a traditional, circular aperture telescope. The compact spectrograph meets the spectral resolution requirements of the mission while using scaled down component technology adapted from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Fig 2 – Image of the CUTE science instrument, including rectangular telescope and miniaturized spectrograph, mounted to the spacecraft bus. Credit: CUTE Team, University of Colorado This novel instrument design enables CUTE to measure NUV with similar precision as larger missions even in the more challenging thermal and pointing environment experienced by a CubeSat. In addition, the CUTE instrument’s NUV bandpass enables it to measure iron and magnesium ions from highly extended atmospheric layers that ground-based instruments cannot access. The CUTE science instrument is incorporated into a 6U Blue Canyon Technologies spacecraft bus that provides power, command and data handling, attitude control, and communications. This CubeSat platform enables CUTE to observe numerous transits of a given planet. The spectrogram from the CUTE instrument is recorded on a UV-optimized commercial off-the-shelf charge-coupled device (CCD), onboard data processing is performed, and data products are relayed to a ground station at the University of Colorado.
Fig 3 –Graduate student Arika Egan (center) and electrical engineer Nicholas DeCicco (left) install CUTE into the LANDSAT-9 secondary payload dispenser at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: CUTE Team, University of Colorado CUTE was launched as a secondary payload on NASA’s LANDSAT-9 mission on September 27, 2021 into a Sun-synchronous orbit with a 560 km apogee. CUTE deployed from the payload dispenser (Fig 2) approximately two hours after launch and then deployed its solar arrays. Spacecraft beacon signals were identified by the amateur radio community on the first orbit and communications were established with the ground station at the University of Colorado the following day. On-orbit commissioning of the spacecraft and instrument concluded in February 2022 and the mission has been conducting science operations since that time.
As of February 2024, CUTE is actively acquiring science and calibration data (Fig 3), and has observed between 6 and 11 transits of seven different exoplanetary systems. Data downlink efficiency is the primary factor limiting the number of targets observed over the course of the mission. CUTE light curves and transit spectroscopy are revealing extended NUV atmospheres on some planets (Fig 4) and potential time variability in the atmospheric transmission spectra of others. For example, observations of the ultra-hot exoplanet, Jupiter WASP-189b, indicate a highly extended atmosphere. Magnesium ions are observed to be gravitationally unbound from the planet, which is evidence for active escape of heavy elements in this system. CUTE data are being archived by the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI).
Fig 4 – Flight data from CUTE showing raw CCD observations (top) and calibrated one-dimensional spectra (bottom). Image credit: France et al (2023) Fig 5 – CUTE NUV transit light curve of the ultra-hot exoplanet, Jupiter WASP-189b. This light curve was created from three separate transit visits to the planet. Image credit: Sreejith, et al (2023) CUTE successfully demonstrated the use of a non-circular telescope and miniature spectrograph design for small space missions, an approach that has been subsequently adopted by several NASA and international mission designs, including NASA’s new Monitoring Activity from Nearby sTars with uv Imaging and Spectroscopy (MANTIS) mission. CUTE’s demonstration of sub-1% NUV precision has shown that the precision achieved by large UV astronomy missions can also be achieved by a CubeSat. In addition, student training and early-career mentorship have been key ingredients to CUTE’s mission success. So far, over 20 early career students and professionals have trained and participated in CUTE activities—ranging from science to engineering to operations.
Professor Kevin France, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics/University of Colorado
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Last Updated Feb 27, 2024 Related Terms
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Credit: NASA/Kenny Allen NASA astronaut and Artemis II pilot Victor Glover is assisted by U.S. Navy personnel as he exits a mockup of the Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean during training Feb. 25, while his crewmates look on. The Artemis II crew and a team from NASA and the Department of Defense are spending several days at sea to test the procedures and tools that will be used to help the crew to safety when they splash down in the ocean at the end of their 10-day, 685,000-mile journey around the Moon next year as part of the first crewed mission under NASA’s Artemis campaign.
On the day of the crew’s return to Earth, a Navy ship with specially trained personnel will await splashdown and then approach the Orion capsule to help extract the four astronauts. An inflatable raft, called the front porch, will provide a place for them to rest when they exit the capsule before they are then individually hoisted by helicopters and flown to the waiting ship.
Artemis II, launching atop the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will test the Orion spacecraft’s life support systems needed for future lunar missions.
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Science Launching on SpaceX's 30th Cargo Resupply Mission to the Space Station
NASA and the agency’s international partners are sending scientific investigations to the International Space Station on the 30th SpaceX commercial resupply services mission, including tests of technologies to monitor sea ice, automate 3D mapping, and create nanoparticle solar cells. The company’s Dragon cargo spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida in early March.
Read more about some of the research making the journey to the orbiting laboratory:
Plants off the Planet
Plants can be used in regenerative life support systems, to provide food, and to contribute to the well-being of astronauts on future deep space exploration missions. C4 Photosynthesis in Space (APEX-09) examines how microgravity affects the mechanisms by which two types of grasses, known as C3 and C4, capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Plants respond to stressful conditions based on their genetic makeup and the environment,” said Pubudu Handakumbura, principal investigator with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We aim to uncover the molecular changes involved in plants exposed to spaceflight stressors and develop an understanding of the mechanisms of photosynthesis in space.” Results could clarify plant responses to stressful environments and inform the design of bio-regenerative support systems on future missions, as well as systems for plant growth on Earth.
Seedlings germinating for the APEX-09 C4 Space investigation. Pubudu Handakumbura Sensing the Sea
The ocean significantly affects the global climate. A technique called Global Navigation Satellite System reflectometry (GNSS-R), which receives satellite signals reflected from the surface of Earth, shows promise as a way to monitor ocean phenomena and improve climate models. Killick-1: A GNSS Reflectometry CubeSat for Measuring Sea Ice Thickness and Extent (Nanoracks KILLICK-1) tests using this technique to measure sea ice. The project supports development of space and science capabilities in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, by providing hands-on experience with space systems and Earth observation. More than 100 undergraduate and graduate engineering students participated in the project.
“The most exciting aspect of this project is that students have the opportunity to launch a mission into space,” said Desmond Power, a co-investigator with C-CORE of Canada. “It is also exciting to build a tiny satellite that does different things, including contributing to our knowledge of climate change.”
GNSS-R technology is low-cost, light, and energy efficient. Its potential applications on Earth include providing data for weather and climate models and improving the understanding of ocean phenomena such as surface winds and storm surge.
The KILLICK-1 CubeSat ready to pack for launch. Memorial University, Canada Automated Autonomous Assistance
Multi-resolution Scanner (MRS) Payload for the Astrobee (Multi-Resolution Scanning) tests technology to automate 3D sensing, mapping, and situational awareness systems.
“Our MRS on an Astrobee free-flying robot will create 3D maps inside the space station,” said Marc Elmouttie, project lead with the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. “The technology combines multiple sensors, which compensates for weaknesses in any one of them and provides very high-resolution 3D data and more accurate trajectory data to understand how the robot moves around in space.”
The technology could be used for autonomous operation of spacecraft with minimal or no human occupancy where robots must sense the environment and precisely maneuver, including the lunar Gateway space station. Other uses could be to inspect and maintain spacecraft and for autonomous vehicle operations on other celestial bodies. Results also support improvements in robotic technologies for harsh and dangerous environments on Earth.
Project Lead Marc Elmouttie with the MRS hardware housed in an Astrobee robot. NASA Placement of Particles
The Nano Particle Haloing Suspension investigation examines how nanoparticles and microparticles interact within an electrical field. A process called nanoparticle haloing uses charged nanoparticles to enable precise particle arrangements that improve the efficiency of quantum-dot synthesized solar cells, according to Stuart J. Williams, principal investigator with the University of Louisville Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Quantum dots are tiny spheres of semiconductor material with the potential to convert sunlight into energy much more efficiently. Conducting these processes in microgravity provides insight into the relationship between shape, charge, concentration, and interaction of particles.
The investigation is supported by NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which partners with government, higher education, and industry on projects to improve a research infrastructure and research and development capacity and competitiveness.
A capstone student assembles part of the Nano Particle Haloing Suspension hardware.University of Louisville Download high-resolution photos and videos of the research mentioned in this article.
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(Left to right) Roscosmos Cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin and NASA Astronauts Michael Barratt, Matthew Dominick, and Jeanette Epps pose for a photo during their Crew Equipment Interface Test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The goal of the training is to rehearse launch day activities and get a close look at the spacecraft that will take them to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX NASA will provide coverage of the upcoming prelaunch and launch activities for the agency’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission with astronauts to the International Space Station.
The launch is targeted for 12:04 a.m. EST, Friday, March 1, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The targeted docking time is about 7 a.m. on Saturday, March 2.
Crew arrival will be available on Kennedy’s streaming channels including YouTube and X. Coverage of launch, the postlaunch news conference, and docking will be available on NASA+, NASA Television, the NASA app, YouTube, and the agency’s website. NASA also will host an audio-only post-Flight Readiness Review news teleconference. Learn how to stream NASA TV through a variety of platforms including social media.
The Crew-8 launch will carry NASA astronauts Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, and Jeanette Epps, as well as Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin.
As part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, the mission marks the eighth crew rotation mission and the ninth human spaceflight mission for NASA to the space station supported by a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft since 2020. Endeavour is the name of this Dragon spacecraft.
The deadline for media accreditation for in-person coverage of this launch has passed. The agency’s media credentialing policy is available online. For questions about media accreditation, please email: email@example.com.
NASA’s mission coverage is as follows (all times Eastern and subject to change based on real-time operations):
Sunday, Feb. 25:
2 p.m. – Crew arrival media event at Kennedy streaming on the center’s social accounts with the following participants:
Jennifer Kunz, associate director, technical, NASA Kennedy Dana Hutcherson, deputy program manager, Commercial Crew Program, NASA Kennedy NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick NASA astronaut Michael Barratt NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin The event is limited to in-person media only. Follow Commercial Crew and Kennedy Space Center for the latest arrival updates.
6 p.m. (approximately) – Flight Readiness Review media teleconference (no earlier than one hour after completion of the Flight Readiness Review) with the following participants:
Ken Bowersox, associate administrator, Space Operations Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters Steve Stich, manager, Commercial Crew Program, NASA Kennedy Joel Montalbano, manager, International Space Station Program, NASA Johnson William Gerstenmaier, vice president, Build and Flight Reliability, SpaceX Eric van der Wal, Houston office team leader, ESA (European Space Agency) Takayoshi Nishikawa, director, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Houston Office Media may ask questions via phone only. For the dial-in number and passcode, please contact the Kennedy newsroom no later than 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, Feb. 28:
9:15 a.m. – NASA Social panel live stream event at Kennedy with the following participants:
NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free Carla Koch, mission manager, Commercial Crew Program, NASA Kennedy Jennifer Buchli, chief scientist, International Space Station Program, NASA Johnson Kristin Fabre, deputy chief scientist, Human Research Program, NASA Johnson Members of the public may ask questions online by posting questions to the YouTube, Facebook, and X livestreams using #AskNASA.
10:30 a.m. – NASA Administrator briefing from Kennedy with the following participants:
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free Joel Montalbano, manager, International Space Station Program Steve Stich, manager, Commercial Crew Program Media may ask questions in person and via phone. Limited auditorium space will be available for in-person participation. For the dial-in number and passcode, media should contact the Kennedy newsroom no later than 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, at email@example.com.
12:30 p.m. – One-on-one media interviews at Kennedy with various mission subject matter experts. Sign-up information will be emailed to media accredited to attend this launch in person.
Thursday, Feb. 29:
8 p.m. – NASA TV launch coverage begins
Friday, March 1:
12:04 a.m. – Launch
Following conclusion of launch and ascent coverage, NASA coverage will continue with audio only, with full coverage resuming at the start of the rendezvous and docking broadcast. The audio link and details will be available nearer to the mission.
NASA Television will resume continuous mission coverage prior to docking and continue through hatch open and the welcome ceremony. For NASA TV downlink information, schedules, and links to streaming video, visit:
2 a.m. (approximately) – Postlaunch news conference on NASA TV
Steve Stich, manager, Commercial Crew Program Joel Montalbano, manager, International Space Station Program Sarah Walker, director, Dragon Mission Management, SpaceX Media may ask questions in person and via phone. Limited auditorium space will be available for in-person participation. For the dial-in number and passcode, please contact the Kennedy newsroom no later than 12 a.m. Friday, March 1, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, March 2:
5 a.m. – NASA TV arrival coverage begins (or about two hours prior to docking)
7 a.m. – Targeted docking to the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony module
Hatch opening will be approximately one-hour-and-forty-five minutes after docking followed by welcome remarks aboard station. All times are estimates and could be adjusted based on operations after launch. Follow the space station blog for the most up-to-date operations information.
Audio Only Coverage
Audio only of the news conferences and launch coverage will be carried on the NASA “V” circuits, which may be accessed by dialing 321-867-1220, -1240 or -7135. On launch day, “mission audio,” countdown activities without NASA TV launch commentary, will be carried on 321-867-7135.
Launch audio also will be available on Launch Information Service and Amateur Television System’s VHF radio frequency 146.940 MHz and KSC Amateur Radio Club’s UHF radio frequency 444.925 MHz, FM mode, heard within Brevard County on the Space Coast.
Live Video Coverage Prior to Launch
NASA will provide a live video feed of Launch Complex 39A approximately 48 hours prior to the planned liftoff of the Crew-8 mission. Pending unlikely technical issues, the feed will be uninterrupted until the prelaunch broadcast begins on NASA TV, approximately four hours prior to launch. Once the feed is live, find it here:
NASA Website Launch Coverage
Launch day coverage of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission will be available on the agency’s website. Coverage will include live streaming and blog updates beginning no earlier than 8 p.m. Feb. 29, as the countdown milestones occur. On-demand streaming video and photos of the launch will be available shortly after liftoff.
For questions about countdown coverage, contact the Kennedy newsroom at 321-867-2468. Follow countdown coverage on the commercial crew or Crew-8 blog.
Attend the Launch Virtually
Members of the public can register to attend this launch virtually. NASA’s virtual guest program for this mission also includes curated launch resources, notifications about related opportunities or changes, and a stamp for the NASA virtual guest passport following a successful launch.
Watch and Engage on Social Media
Let people know you’re following the mission on X, Facebook, and Instagram by using the hashtags #Crew8 and #NASASocial. You can also stay connected by following and tagging these accounts:
X: @NASA, @NASAKennedy, @NASASocial, @Space_Station, @ISS_Research, @ISS National Lab, @SpaceX, @Commercial_Crew
Facebook: NASA, NASAKennedy, ISS, ISS National Lab
Instagram: @NASA, @NASAKennedy, @ISS, @ISSNationalLab, @SpaceX
Coverage en Espanol
Did you know NASA has a Spanish section called NASA en Espanol? Make sure to check out NASA en Espanol on X, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube for more coverage on Crew-8.
Para obtener información sobre cobertura en español en el Centro Espacial Kennedy o si desea solicitar entrevistas en español, comuníquese con Antonia Jaramillo: 321-501-8425;email@example.com; o Messod Bendayan: 256-930-1371; firstname.lastname@example.org.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has delivered on its goal of safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station from the United States through a partnership with American private industry. This partnership is changing the arc of human spaceflight history by opening access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station to more people, more science, and more commercial opportunities. The space station remains the springboard to NASA’s next great leap in space exploration, including future missions to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.
For NASA’s launch blog and more information about the mission, visit:
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Last Updated Feb 23, 2024 LocationNASA Headquarters Related Terms
Humans in Space Astronauts Commercial Space International Space Station (ISS) ISS Research Jeanette J. Epps Matthew Dominick NASA Headquarters View the full article
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