NASA’s big rocket will carry 13 cool tiny satellites

NASA’s the Space Launch System will be launching the unmanned Orion spacecraft along with 13 cubesats destined for moon, space weather and other missions


The Lunar Flashlight cubesat plus 12 others will be included on the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System in 2018. The Flashlight will survey the moon’s surface for ice deposits and identify locations where resources may be extracted.

Credit: NASA

NASA today said the first voyage of its heavy-lift rocket will include 13 tiny satellites or cubesats that will conduct a variety of experiments from taking a closer look at the moon to evaluating space weather.

NASA’s rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – along with an unmanned Orion spacecraft are expected to launch in 2018. The heart of the mission is to test the rockets but also to evaluate the Orion spacecraft which is the first spacecraft built for astronauts destined for deep space since NASA’s Apollo missions and ultimately is destined for deep space travel.

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NASA said that SLS’ first flight, referred to as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will also include 13 cubesats with a variety of missions.  Some of those missions have not been determined yet but here are the cubesats that have:

  • Skyfire - Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, will develop a cubesat to perform a lunar flyby of the moon, taking sensor data during the flyby to enhance knowledge of the lunar surface.
  • Lunar IceCube - Morehead State University, will build a CubeSat to search for water ice and other resources at a low orbit of only 62 miles above the surface of the moon.
  • Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid, take pictures and observe its position in space.
  • BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations in deep space.
  • Lunar Flashlight will look for ice deposits and identify locations where resources may be extracted from the lunar surface.
  • CuSP – a “space weather station” to measure particles and magnetic fields in space, testing practicality for a network of stations to monitor space weather.
  • LunaH-Map will map hydrogen within craters and other permanently shadowed regions throughout the moon’s south pole.

NASA said it expects three cubesats will come from its ongoing Cube Quest Challenge, which will be decided by 2017. The Cube Quest Challenge offers a package worth $5 million for competitors to build unique propulsion and communications technologies for small, inexpensive satellite systems known as cubesats. NASA said it wanted this challenge to focus on building better communications and propulsion technologies for the cube-shaped satellites are typically about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds.

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Currently cubesat communications technology has been limited to low-bandwidth data communications in near-Earth orbits. Cubesats often use low power / low-gain communications subsystems, unique protocols, or amateur radio wavelengths not suitable for advanced science missions in the remote distances of deep space, NASA said.

As for the propulsion issue, NASA said developers are only starting to introduce limited in-space propulsion systems to cubesats. Together, these challenges are expected to contribute to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft for the first time, NASA stated.

Challenge objectives include designing, building and delivering flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the moon, NASA said.

NASA said the final three payload slots will come from international partners and discussions about those missions is ongoing.

On the mission EM-1 mission, the cubesats will be deployed after the Orion system is separated from the upper stage and once Orion is a safe distance away. Each payload will be ejected with a spring mechanism from dispensers on the Orion stage adapter. Following deployment, the transmitters on the CubeSats will turn on, and ground stations will listen for their beacons to track them, NASA said.

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