The Cubesat Revolution Heads for Deeper Space

Lunar Icecube: One of today's winners Credit: NASA

Lunar Icecube: One of today’s winners
Credit: NASA

NASA held a press conference at the Marshall Space Flight Center today to announce the selection of a seven cubesats which will catch a ride to deep space on the maiden flight of the Space Launch system in 2018. Altogether the space agency plans on filling 13 slots out of a total possible number of 17, with each of the tiny spacecraft attached to adapter ring for the Orion spacecraft, and held for release until after the Orion has been sent on its high looping orbit around the Moon.

The winners, as detailed in the full press release are as follows: See if you can spot a theme.

From NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement:

  • Skyfire – Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Denver, Colorado, will develop a CubeSat to perform a lunar flyby of the moon, taking sensor data during the flyby to enhance our knowledge of the lunar surface
  • Lunar IceCubeMorehead State University, Kentucky, 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

From NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate:

  • 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

and from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:

  • 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

That’s right. Three of the cubesats will be explicitly searching for water ice, or at least its signature, while a fourth, Skyfire, is described as studying the lunar surface in general.

NeoScout approaches 1991VG

NeoScout approaches 1991VG

Of particular interest may be the Near Earth Asteroid Scount, which although getting its initial boost from SLS, will then deploy an 86 square meter solar sail just 2.5 microns thick to makes its way to the target asteroid 1991VG. If successful, it will use a combination of low and higher resolution imagery to help characterize this class of smallish, less than 100 meter space rock.

In addition to the seven winners announced today, NASA is reserving three slots for international partners, as well as three more for the Cube Quest Challenge, a competition sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and directed towards non-governmental contestants.

The Cube Quest Challenge, which is being conducted in four rounds, hopes to push the state of the art in cubesat propulsion and communications through establishing two arenas for competition. One is in the lunar vicinity, while the other is in deeper space, beginning at a minimum 4 million kilometers from Earth. One of the more interesting provisions calls for a “last man standing” element in which the cubesat which channels its best Timex to “take a licking and keeps on ticking” wins.

Posted in: CubeSats

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