NASA will launch 13 small research satellites with the unmanned Orion deep space explorer craft in the first mission of the new Space Launch System rocket that aims to eventually put humans on Mars, the agency said this week.
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman gave details of the 3 pound nano-satellites, shaped like shoeboxes and called CubeSats, during a press conference at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Tuesday.
Each CubeSat contains a lightweight payload ready to gather astronomical weather information, study deep space radiation and collect data on other destinations, including the moon and near-Earth asteroids. Seven of the payloads have been allocated, three are reserved for NASA’s international partners, and three will be determined by a special competition.
“The design and advanced technology that we will be flying is really setting the stage for our future human exploration,” Newman said.
The Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket propulsion unit ever built, and it will carry an unmanned prototype of the Orion crew module into orbit in the 2018 mission, designated Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1. From orbit, a European-built cryogenic propulsion unit will power Orion farther from the Earth than any spacecraft designed for humans has ever flown, before it slingshots around the Moon on its return journey. NASA hopes the SLS/Orion combination will eventually take humans to Mars.
The CubeSats will be carried into space with the Orion spacecraft as part of EM-1 and will be ejected into orbit by a special spring launching mechanism.
Joining Orion atop the SLS will allow the CubeSats to travel farther and reach areas of space that are less explored, Newman said.
“We’re going out to deep space,” Newman said. “This orbit leaves Earth, it goes to the lunar orbit, and past the lunar orbit. The view from there will be pretty spectacular when we look back on our own Earth.”
Four different CubeSats are aimed at the moon, studying its surface, mapping the presence of hydrogen and using a “Lunar Flashlight” to search for areas on the moon where ice or other resources could be extracted, according to NASA.
Another payload called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout will survey and photograph a nearby asteroid, NEA Scout engineer Les Johnson said. The satellite will use a solar sail, he said – a plastic sheet of aluminum as thick as a human hair that can steer and propel the CubeSat by reflecting sunlight. A sixth is designed to study space weather, and the BioSentinel CubeSat will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations.
Another three of the CubeSats will be designed by the winners of the Cube Quest Challenge, a contest with a $5.5 million prize pool in which different teams across the nation will devise working payloads. The winning three will be included with the Orion launch, Cube Quest Program Administrator Jim Cockrell said. The competition will be NASA’s first ever in-space challenge, as the CubeSats will compete partly based on survivability and functionality in space.
“In order to win those prizes, our teams are going to have to demonstrate advancements in propulsion capabilities, communication technology … autonomous operation and power management, and navigation beyond the constraints of lower orbits,” Cockrell said.
The competition is open to anyone at no cost, Cockrell said. Twelve teams already registered, including groups from universities and small businesses, one from a high school, and a team of a single retired engineer.