The first test of NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System is still slated for December, 2017, even though the General Accounting Office has warned that the schedule may slip due to inadequate funding. Whenever it lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center, SLS will carry an Orion spacecraft prototype that will loop around the moon and then splash land in the Pacific Ocean. Also, according to a Tuesday story in Space News, it will carry a number of tiny space probes known as Cubesats.
Cubesats weigh about three pounds and have the volume of a quart sized jug. They use modern electronics to pack in instruments that in previous years would take much larger space craft to contain. They all small, light-weight, and cheap enough so that colleges and small businesses can build them. They are perfect for flying as secondary payloads for launches dedicated for other purposes.
There are 11 cubsats planned for the first SLS launch. The missions are still in the planning stages. But NASA has already chosen three for the ride along. They are:
“BioSentinel, a NASA Ames Research Center project to study the damage radiation causes to living organisms; Lunar Flashlight, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory cubesat equipped with a solar sail to provide propulsion and illuminate permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole; and Near Earth Asteroid Scout, a Marshall Space Flight Center mission to rendezvous with an asteroid and gather detailed imagery.”
Along with the eight other cubesats to be selected by NASA, these probes would ride on the SLS just below the Orion where the space where the life support system would be if the vehicle were crewed. The cubesats would be ejected once the SLS achieves escape velocity and would travel the rest of the way to their various destinations using ion engine or solar sails. This will allow them to travel to different destinations to accomplish different tasks.
In the meantime NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program is developing a couple of new contests regarding cubesats. The proposed contests would award “$3 million in prizes to competitors who demonstrate advanced cubesat propulsion, communications and longevity in lunar orbit and $1.5 million for cubesats capable of communicating with Earth from ten times the distance between Earth and the Moon.“
Cubesats have the potential of revolutionizing how space is explored. Instead of one, giant space probe, a swarm of cubesats, some of them specialized, could be sent to targets throughout the solar system instead. They will be cheap enough to make more missions financially possible. Finally they will widen the number of groups that can conduct space missions.