NASA’s big return to the Moon will call for the support of small technologies — specifically, the miniature spacecraft known as CubeSats.

The class of nanosatellites called CubeSats have a standard size based on one unit, or “1U.” The 1U CubeSat measures 10 x 10 x 10 centimeters, and sizes are extended to 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and 12U.

NASA’s ongoing Artemis program , which has the goal of bringing astronauts to the lunar South Pole by 2024, will require the miniature aircraft to make important lunar measurements.

NASA 2024 Moon Mission: Lunar Flashlight

A precursor mission known as Lunar Flashlight  aims to answer an important question for those exploring the viability of a long-term, sustainable presence on the Moon: How much ice exists there?

As part of the Lunar Flashlight program, a 12 x 24 x 36-centimeter CubeSat will map the lunar South Pole and locate the size and composition of frozen reservoirs in the ice deposits of the Moon’s permanently shadowed craters — also known as cold traps.

Having an idea of the concentration of water-ice in these cold traps is valuable information, as lunar bases will need to be placed near locations where water can be mined and processed into rocket fuel and drinking water.

The 'Flashlight' CubeSat, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, features an optical receiver aligned with four lasers. The lasers will sequentially pulse the lunar landscape to look for water ice and other volatiles associated with lunar cold traps. Go to Nasa.gov for more information. 

NASA 2024 Moon Mission: CAPSTONE

Another important lunar mission requires a CubeSat to demonstrate entry into a unique, highly elliptical orbit over the Moon's poles.

In this "near rectilinear halo orbit," a CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE , is to be positioned in the same lunar orbit targeted for Gateway — the lunar outpost that astronauts will visit before descending to the Moon's surface.

The nanosatellite will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

an illustration of the NASA CAPSTONE CubeSat satellite
llustration of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE). (Image Credit: Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems)

The dynamics of near rectilinear halo orbit have been modeled on the ground, but not in space. Launching a CubeSat will measure what it takes to enter and remain in that unique orbit, according to Christopher Baker, Small Spacecraft Technology program executive within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate .

“It doesn’t take a lot of energy to get into a near rectilinear halo orbit. Therefore, it doesn’t take a lot of energy to get out of that orbit,”said Baker . “So how do you stay there?”

CAPSTONE and Lunar Flashlight are only the beginning of CubeSat missions, according to NASA's program exec. In an edited interview with Tech Briefs below, Baker explains how he sees an expanding role for the nanosatellites as NASA expands its space-exploration efforts.

Tech Briefs: In a recent NASA press release , you said that CubeSats are best for missions with targeted objectives. What are targeted objectives that you can envision for the Moon?

Christopher Baker: CubeSats can help with lunar exploration in many ways. Lunar Flashlight and CAPSTONE are just two upcoming missions, each with a very different purpose. One will help inform surface operations while the other will provide data about a unique cislunar orbit as well as demonstrate a new navigation solution. We’re also partnering with universities to develop systems and technologies related to the needs of future small, Moon-bound missions. The payloads will address the following technical areas:

  • Use of small spacecraft to help provide lunar communications and navigation services
  • Small spacecraft propulsion for lunar missions and potential return of lunar samples using small spacecraft
  • Small spacecraft electrical power and thermal management systems tailored for the distant and harsh environment between Earth and the Moon

Tech Briefs: What will be the first planned mission involving CubeSats and lunar exploration?

Christopher Baker: CAPSTONE will launch to the Moon in a little under a year – early 2021 – and will be one of the first lunar CubeSats related to the Artemis program. There are many other lunar CubeSats in development, including Artemis I secondary payloads  plus three more deep-space CubeSats developed via a NASA prize competition .

Tech Briefs: How do you envision CubeSats working together in swarms?

Christopher Baker: In the future, constellations of CubeSats could provide exploration missions with communications relays or navigation services at the Moon, similar to how we use communications satellites and GPS around Earth. This capability could play an important role in helping the agency build a sustainable presence on the Moon.

Swarms and distributed missions used for multi-point data collection and with multiple spacecraft working together in a synthetic aperture (as if they were a single, very large instrument) can enable new discoveries and gather data for exploration missions including identification of resources to support a sustainable lunar presence.

Tech Briefs: Why is a CubeSat such a valuable tool for space exploration?

Christopher Baker: NASA is demonstrating that with our industry and university partners we can propose a CubeSat concept and start building hardware shortly thereafter. The speed and flexibility of these missions make them ideal precursor missions for challenging or new destinations. We’ve also seen how they can support larger NASA missions, as the MarCO CubeSats did for InSight when it landed on Mars in 2018.

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