The Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat (SPARCS): Determining Inputs to Planetary Habitability

David R. Ardila, Evgenya Shkolnik, Paul Scowen, Daniel Jacobs, Dawn Gregory, Travis Barman, Christopher Basset, Judd Bowman, Samuel Cheng, Jonathan Gamaut, Logan Jensen, April Jewell, Matthew Kolonapis, Mary Knapp, Matthew Kolopanis, Joseph Llama, R. O. Parke Loyd, Victoria Meadows, Shouleh Nikzad, Sara PeacockTahina Ramiaramanantsoa, Nathaniel Struebel, Mark Swain

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Seventy-five billion low-mass stars in our galaxy host at least one small planet in their habitable zone (HZ). The stellar ultraviolet (UV) radiation received by the planets is strong and highly variable, and has consequences for atmospheric loss, composition, and habitability. These effects are amplified by the extreme proximity of the stellar HZs (0.1-0.4 AU) in low-mass stars. SPARCS is a NASA-funded mission to characterize the quiescent and flare UV emission from low-mass stars. SPARCS will observe 10 to 20 low-mass stars, over timescales of days, simultaneously in two UV bands: 153-171 nm and 260-300 nm. SPARCS Sun-synchronous terminator orbit allows for long periods of uninterrupted observations, reaching 10s of days for some targets. The payload consists of a 10 cm-class telescope, a dichroic element, UV detectors and associated electronics, a thermal control system, and an on-board processor. The payload is hosted on a Blue Canyon Technologies 6U CubeSat. SPARCS hosts several technology innovations that have broad applicability to other missions. The payload demonstrates the use of "2D-doped" (i.e., delta- and superlattice-doped) detectors and detector-integrated metal dielectric filters in space. This detector technology provides ~5x larger quantum efficiency than NASA's GALEX detectors. In addition, SPARCS' payload processor provides dynamic exposure control, automatically adjusting the exposure time to avoid flare saturation and to time-resolve the strongest stellar flares. A simple passive cooling system maintains the detector temperature under 238K to minimize dark current. The spacecraft bus provides pointing jitter smaller than 6", minimizing the impact of flat-field errors, dark current, and read-noise. All these elements enable competitive astrophysics science within a CubeSat platform. SPARCS is currently in the final design and fabrication phase (Phase C in the NASA context). It will be launched in 2024, for a primary science mission of one year.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalProceedings of the International Astronautical Congress, IAC
StatePublished - 2022
Event73rd International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2022 - Paris, France
Duration: Sep 18 2022Sep 22 2022


  • Astrophysics
  • CubeSats
  • Exoplanets
  • NASA
  • Stars
  • Ultraviolet

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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