Lawrence Livermore is renowned for its pioneering accomplishments in national and global security, but it’s perhaps less well known for its rich history in advancing space science. In fact, the Laboratory’s first contribution to space exploration coincided with the start of the space age. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union placed in orbit Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Soon after the launch, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, charged with tracking Sputnik in orbit, contacted the Laboratory (then called the University of California Radiation Laboratory at Livermore) for help. In response, Livermore scientists turned to their THEMIS code, the only software available that could accurately track Sputnik’s orbit. The code ran on the Laboratory’s two IBM 704 computers for three days.
Over the following decades, Lawrence Livermore researchers continued to make important contributions to the nation’s growing capability in space for both basic science and as an increasingly important element to national security. For example, a major element of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1980s was a Livermore concept called Brilliant Pebbles: a constellation of small, lightweight spacecraft that could stop ballistic missiles by colliding with them at high speeds. Although the Laboratory’s work on SDI was discontinued following the end of the Cold War, sensors and cameras developed for Brilliant Pebbles became components of the Clementine Deep Space Experiment in 1994.
Clementine was the first U.S. spacecraft to visit the moon in more than two decades. Using six cameras designed and built at Livermore, Clementine mapped the entire lunar surface in 14 discrete spectral bands and at resolutions never before attained. Clementine represented a new class of small, low-cost spacecraft. In addition, a wide variety of Laboratory advances in state-of-the-art sensors have built on Clementine’s success.
More recently, Livermore has made seminal contributions to space science with x-ray optics for various NASA missions and laser guide star technology that eliminates the twinkles caused by atmospheric distortions in ground-based telescopes. Livermore engineers played a central role in the design of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), under construction in the Chilean Andes. One Livermore innovation combined two of LSST’s three massive mirrors into a single monolithic surface, thereby saving construction costs and weight.
As described in the feature article, Space Program Innovation, One Small Satellite at a Time, an important new focus for Livermore is a class of nanosatellites called cube satellites, or CubeSats. These miniature spacecraft get their name from a design based on one or more cubes measuring 10 centimeters on a side. Their modular architecture allows scientists to “plug and play” different sensors on a standardized framework. These remarkably small spacecraft are beginning to transform space operations, in particular data collection. NASA tested the concept last year when it sent the first CubeSats into deep space for relaying communications to Earth from the InSight Mars lander.
CubeSats offer several benefits over traditional satellite technology. Rather than one large satellite costing hundreds of millions of dollars and taking many years to build, CubeSats can be designed and built for a few million dollars (or much less) in several months. The reduced cost and shorter development cycle and production time means technology can become viable more quickly. A less expensive fleet of smaller satellites also means the demise of one CubeSat in a fleet would not jeopardize an entire mission, as would the loss of a much larger one-of-a-kind spacecraft.
Although early CubeSat efforts at Livermore incorporated conventional telescope designs, later GEOstare spacecraft used a visible light telescope fabricated from a single piece of fused silica, a design inspired by LSST. A fleet of these probes could vastly improve our space-based situational awareness capability. Our latest CubeSat design, dubbed MiniCarb, will monitor atmospheric gases.
Livermore’s many space science efforts are made possible by an outstanding team with multidisciplinary expertise in astrophysics, instrumentation, x-ray and visible-light optics, physics-based high-performance modeling and simulation, advanced manufacturing, and innovative spacecraft architectures. We are pushing the boundaries of space technology to meet challenges in space security, space exploration, and basic science.