For the first time in 50 years, a crew-capable spacecraft travels toward the Moon. The Artemis I mission has already demonstrated the functionality of the SLS rocket, NASA’s new heavy lifter derived from Shuttle hardware. Over the next few weeks, the Orion capsule will navigate around the Moon to prove the functionality of her systems. However, that’s not the only payload onboard.
In order to increase the scientific returns of the mission, NASA installed several CubeSat dispensers on top of the second stage. Situated in the ring that connects the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage to the Orion capsule, these dispensers hold ten 6U CubeSats, which means each of them measures 10x20x30 cm. These shoebox-sized satellites are the product of several entities in the US and abroad. Here are the exciting missions each one will carry out.
ArgoMoon was developed by the Italian and European Space Agencies, and built by the Italian company ArgoTec. It is the only European CubeSat, and one of just three non-US ones. ArgoMoon is equipped with advanced optics and imaging software. It will take pictures of the ICPS, the Orion capsule, the Earth and the Moon, and of the deployment of the other Cubesats. These images will provide valuable mission data and also serve as historical documentation of the moment. The satellite will also test the use of artificial intelligence to monitor the health of its system and solve the problems that might arise.
Another experiment onboard will test long-distance optical communication systems. The satellite will perform a series of lunar fly-bys for six months, then it will move to a solar orbit. A monopropellant thruster that uses a fuel based on ammonium dinitramide will provide propulsion. This monopropellant offers greater performance and less toxicity compared to the commonly used hydrazine.
Built by the Ames Research Center in California, this CubeSat will use a Moon fly-by to reach a Solar orbit. Once there, it will rehydrate some dry yeast cells to study the effects of radiation in interplanetary space. Yeast cells are similar to human ones, so this mission will offer precious insight into how the human body might respond to radiation during trips to other planets. The mission will last 6 to 12 months.
The CubeSat to study Solar Particles was built by the Southwest Research Institute, in Texas. It will also reach a Solar orbit, where it will measure the particles emitted and the magnetic fields generated by our star. This data will help us understand how these phenomena might impact satellite electronics, communication networks, and power grids here on Earth. By hitching a ride on SLS, CuSP will be able to study the Sun from a perspective most weather satellites can’t get, as they either orbit the Earth or the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point.
Built by the University of Tokyo, Japan, the EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft will travel to the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point, demonstrating navigation on low-energy transfer trajectories. From there, it will take images of Earth’s plasmasphere, the region where our planet’s magnetic field traps plasma; these data will be valuable for both crewed and uncrewed spaceflight.
The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper has been built by Arizona State University. The CubeSat will fly over the Lunar South Pole at low altitudes and precisely detect hydrogen, and thus water. It will do so by measuring the energies of the neutrons that have interacted with the top layers of the lunar soil. When neutrons bump into a hydrogen atom they slow down, since the two have similar masses. Thus, low-speed, low-energy neutrons will indicate the presence of water near the surface.
Built by Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado, LunIR will perform a lunar fly-by and survey the surface with an advanced miniaturized infrared sensor. This will help address knowledge gaps about material composition, thermal signatures, the presence of water, and potential landing sites. It will also feature an innovative cryocooler for the sensor.
Provided by the Morehead State University of Kentucky, it will use an infrared spectrometer to search for water and other volatiles on the Moon. It will not only detect ice but also monitor its changes over time. Knowledge of seasonal variations of lunar ice will be crucial if we want to exploit it in the future. It will also investigate the extremely thin lunar atmosphere.
The Near Earth Asteroid Scout was built by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Once released, it will unfurl an 86-square-meters solar sail, and travel to 2020 GE, a Near Earth Asteroid. Once there it will take pictures of the surface to help scientists determine its structure and composition. At less than 18 meters wide, it will be the smallest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft. On 22 Nov 2022, researchers had trouble contacting the satellite, and attempts were ongoing.
The Outstanding MOon exploration TEchnologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor is the second CubeSat built by JAXA and the University of Tokyo. The small satellite will use a tiny solid motor and an airbag to attempt to land on the lunar surface. It is predicted to impact the surface at 20-30 m/s. Though primarily a technology demonstrator, it will also measure radiation levels on or near the surface of our satellite. If successful, it will pave the wave for the exploration of the lunar surface with smaller, cheaper spacecraft. It will also make Japan the fourth country to successfully land a vehicle on the Moon, after the USSR, the US, and China.
On 21 Nov 2022, a Twitter message sent by JAXA reported that further attempts to communicate with the lander, which was scheduled to begin its landing sequences that day, had ended.
For ham enthusiasts, and all over the world:— OMOTENASHI Project (@OMOTENASHI_JAXA) November 21, 2022
Though we tried to recover OMOTENASHI and start the landing sequences today, the communication didn’t come back, and we gave up our UHF operation on the landing phase. Thank you for the excellent cooperation from everyone. https://t.co/gMdOPLlUWs
Built by Miles Space, a team of citizen scientists, the CubeSat will demonstrate plasma thruster propulsion. This form of ion propulsion will use electric power to accelerate iodine ions, producing thrust. It will also use a Software-Define Radio for communication, allowing great flexibility in communications.
Many of these CubeSats will attempt daring missions, especially for small spacecraft. In addition, we don’t know if and how the numerous launch scrubs have affected the satellites, which NASA considers a secondary payload. So there’s no guarantee all of them will succeed. In any case, there’s no doubt the developments regarding them will be exciting, so make sure to follow them in their endeavors!