NASA: Yeast, flashlight and solar sailing key parts of first big rocket mission

NASA says 11 cubesats will fly along on key space test mission

nea scout concept art high res2
Credit: NASA

NASA recently said it has picked three of the 11 cubesats it will send along with the first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which could blast off in the 2017/2018 timeframe.

The 70-metric-ton SLS will stand 321 feet tall, offer 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, weigh 5.5 million pounds and carry 154,000 pounds of payload. The first SLS mission—Exploration Mission 1—in 2017 will launch an unmanned Orion spacecraft to demonstrate the integrated system performance of the SLS rocket and spacecraft prior to a mission with astronauts onboard.

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Onboard the mission and tucked inside the ring connecting Orion to the top propulsion stage of the SLS will be 11 self-contained small satellites, each about the size of a large shoebox, NASA said.

“About 10 minutes after Orion and its service module escape the pull of Earth’s gravity, the two will disconnect and Orion will proceed toward the moon. Once Orion is a safe distance away, the small payloads will begin to be deployed, all at various times during the flight depending on the particular missions. No pyrotechnic devices will be a part of the payloads and each will be ejected with a spring mechanism – similar to opening a lid on a toy jack-in-the-box.

These cubesats are nano-satellites designed to be efficient and versatile. The masses of these secondary payloads are light -- no heavier than 30 pounds (14 kilograms) -- and will not require any extra power from the rocket to work. They will essentially piggyback on the SLS flight, providing what otherwise would be costly access to deep space,” NASA said.

The first three cubesats include:

The BioSentinel: The BioSentinel mission will be the first time living organisms have traveled to deep space in more than 40 years and the spacecraft will operate in the deep space radiation environment during its 18-month mission. BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep-space radiation on living organisms over long durations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). Since the unique deep space radiation environment cannot be replicated on or near Earth, the BioSentinel mission is one way to help inform us of the greatest risks to humans exploring beyond LEO, so that appropriate radiation protections can be developed and those dangers can be mitigated, NASA stated.

NEA Scout: Near-Earth Asteroid Scout will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid using a cubesat and solar sail propulsion [via the Largest solar sail – 85 meters -- ever deployed by the US space program], which offers navigation agility during cruise for approaching the target. Propelled by sunlight, NEA Scout will flyby and observe a small asteroid (<300 feet in diameter), taking pictures and observing its position in space, the asteroid’s shape, rotational properties, spectral class, local dust and debris field, regional morphology and regolith properties. The data collected will enhance the current understanding of asteroid environments, NASA said.

Lunar Flashlight: Resources at destinations in space, such as atmospheres, water ice and regolith, can be broken down into their component molecules and used as building materials, propellant, oxygen for humans to breathe and drinking water. This capability, known as in-situ resource utilization is most useful for human explorers if the ISRU “power plants” are deployed to locations that are rich in the required resources. NASA’s Lunar Flashlight will demonstrate this scouting capability from lunar orbit by performing multiple passes of the surface to look for ice deposits and identifying favorable locations for in-situ resource extraction and utilization. Lunar Flashlight will use a large solar sail, similar to the NEA Scout sail, to reflect sunlight and illuminate permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles. A spectrometer will then observe the reflected light to measure the surface water ice. The spacecraft will make repeated measurements over multiple points in the craters, creating a map of the surface ice concentration, NASA said.

It will be interesting to see if these solar sail propulsion systems actually make it to the missions as few have been tested in space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) mission being the first successful sustained use of the technology in 2010. NASA’s Sunjammer solar sail test has been delayed a number of times in the past but funding for the project continues to appear in the space agency’s budget plans.

The other eight cubesat missions/slots have not been selected yet.

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