The CubeSat Revolution: Hitching Rides to the Front Lines

Lunar IceCube Credit Morehead State University

Lunar IceCube
Credit Morehead State University

In talking with attendees at the NewSpace 2015 conference which was held in Mid-July in San Jose, California, two emerging themes became clear. The first is that the cubesat revolution is beginning in earnest, and it offers the potential for fundamentally changing how we go about the process of conducting space exploration. From miniaturized cryo-coolers and infra-red sensors to a profusion of start-ups promising innovative solutions for in-space propulsion, cubesats are poised to head out into the solar system in ever increasing numbers. On the other hand, all of that optimism must be tempered by the second observation; the first 100 miles or so is still the hardest part of the equation.

From bundled ride-share opportunities arranged by companies such as SpaceFlight Industries to the emergence of a new class of very small launch vehicles offered by companies such as Rocket Lab and Firefly, future prospects are certainly improving, but the question is how much. Rocket Lab for instance, which looks to be the first to the launch pad, is offering its 100 KG capacity Electron launch vehicle for $4.9 M per flight. For the time being at least, the potential for what you can do with a cubesat is easily outstripping progress in reducing the costs of the getting them to orbit.

A case in point is Lunar IceCube, one of 12 NASA NextSTEP winners announced in May which happens to be featured on the space agency’s website today. A collaboration between Morehead State and NASA Goddard,  Lunar IceCube, a 6U cubesat will use a tiny instrument called the Broadband InfraRed Compact High Resolution Explorer Spectrometer (BIRCHES), to prospect for water in each of its states; ice, liquid, and vapor from lunar orbit. Overcoming one of the main challenged of operating a limited power spacecraft beyond LEO, Morehead State will communicate with the cubesat via its own 21 meter antenna and ground station. First however, it’s got to get there, which is where the rub comes in. The Lunar IceCube team is competing against several other equally promising cubesats for a slots on Orion’s adapter ring for the Space Launch System’s EM-1 mission. The irony is almost too much, using the largest and most expensive booster in the world as the source of transport for some of the smallest, yet most innovative spacecraft yet conceived. Still, SLS happens to be going the right way in this case, so why not make use of it?

The unfortunate reality is that someone is going to be left out, which is after all, a normal part of any selection process. But what is so noteworthy about the cubesat revolution is the fact that at whatever point more optimized launch solutions become available, it might be difficult to tell where the limit really actually is, and it may not be the sky any more.


Posted in: CubeSats, NASA

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