LLNL Pandora SmallSat mission clears major NASA milestone on the path toward launch

Engineers working on flight hardware in the lab (Download Image)

Lead electrical engineer Collin Averill (left to right), electrical engineer Richinder Rehal and flight software engineer Lance Simms work on flight hardware in the lab. (Photos: Garry McLeod/LLNL)


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL) Pandora SmallSat mission recently passed NASA’s critical design review: a major milestone for the mission to continue its journey toward launch. The Pandora SmallSat mission will study planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets, and their stars.  

“This is a major milestone for the mission and a huge accomplishment for our team, clearing us through spacecraft integration and to flight readiness,” said Ben Bahney, LLNL’s program leader for Space Science and Security. “It means NASA has a high level of confidence the mission will deliver its scientific objectives on-budget and on-schedule.”

Astronomers know there are more planets than stars. But the quest to understand what these worlds beyond our solar system are like leaves many unanswered questions — including if any might be habitable.

Lead mechanical engineer Hillary Johnson and lead electrical engineer Collin Averill adjust a heat strap on the infrared detector assembly from the James Webb Space Telescope next to a model of Pandora’s telescope.

Pandora will untangle signals from 20 stars and their 39 exoplanets to understand how changes in starlight affect measurements of these worlds’ atmospheres. Understanding these signals is key to interpreting which signals are from exoplanet atmospheres and which are from starspots, stellar phenomena that are similar to sunspots and can contaminate data.

Pandora is a small satellite, weighing in at 325 kilograms (or 716 pounds), with an optical telescope measuring 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) in aperture — the diameter of the telescope’s mirror. The mission is expected to be launched in early 2025.

It will help researchers better understand data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), by addressing and mitigating the impact of stellar contamination in exoplanet data. A spare infrared sensor from JWST, provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), also will be used on Pandora to provide longer observing baseline and spectral coverage that will support Webb’s higher-precision observations. 

LLNL is delivering the compact yet powerful Pandora on a modest budget by leveraging the Lab’s experience and capabilities in optics design, fabrication, small satellite payloads and close collaboration with commercial vendors.

The Pandora team with engineering hardware for the telescope. From left: mechanical designer Scott Pitts, flight software lead Lance Simms, mechanical engineer Jeff Klingmann, project systems engineer Marichris Schneider, lead mechanical designer Owen Alford, optical engineer Aaron Peer, space vehicle integration lead Phillip Rittmuller, mechanical designer Ariana Garcia, electrical engineer Richinder Rehal, systems engineer Tara Grice, lead mechanical engineer Hilary Johnson, lead electrical engineer Colin Averill, thermal engineer Michael Wong, structural analyst Ryan Fellini and deputy project manager Jordan Karburn.

Pandora has a novel all-aluminum telescope, called CODA, that was developed jointly by LLNL and Corning. CODA provides an alternative to traditional glass reflective telescopes, which are notoriously difficult to manufacture.

The all-aluminum telescope is highly manufacturable, lowering costs and shortening manufacturing times. LLNL’s commercial partner, Blue Canyon Technologies, provided a commercially available spacecraft, leveraging designs used for other government space missions to create the Pandora small satellite.

“Passing this review means our optics design, combined with our unique commercial partnerships, meet the challenging requirements set by NASA,” said Maricris Schneider, LLNL project systems engineer for Pandora. “We met these rigorous standards while also keeping costs low. We’re proud of this accomplishment and look forward to completing integration and testing.”

Pandora is funded by NASA’s Astrophysics Pioneers program, which focuses on small, low-cost, yet ambitious missions. Following the successful critical design review, the Pandora team is now building and testing the observatory for a planned launch readiness in 2025.  

LLNL and NASA’s GSFC are co-leading Pandora as part of NASA’s new Astrophysics Pioneers program, with LLNL leading project management and NASA GSFC leading the science.

Pandora is led by Elisa Quintana, principal investigator at GSFC, with Pete Supsinskas, project manager, and Jordan Karburn, his deputy, at LLNL. Cris Schneider is the LLNL project system engineer for the effort.

Additional leadership and co-investigators from GSFC, NASA Ames and several universities will provide scientific contributions to the project.