Huge Launch Vehicle, Tiny Science Satellites – Medium

Aug 28
With the Artemis I mission set to launch in just a couple of days, here is a look at the tiny spacecraft doing huge science for the mission.
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and next generation crew capsule, the Orion spacecraft, are set to launch tomorrow at 8:33 a.m. ET (12:33 GMT) on a monumental journey to the moon with a mission known as Artemis I. The SLS will be NASA’s most powerful rocket ever launched, producing a staggering 8.8 million pounds (39,000 kN) of thrust and will tower over 365 feet (110 meters) tall; it will send the massive Orion spacecraft, which sits on top at at almost 60,000 lbs (27,000 kg), towards the moon for a 42 day journey to test all systems. Despite the sheer size and magnitude of this mission, it will consist of multiple little spacecraft hitching a ride to deep space that will produce very important scientific results to expand our understanding of deep space exploration.
As part of Artemis I, the mission will carry 10 CubeSats — tiny little satellites about the size of a shoebox — into space to explore space and test and advance technologies for space travel. Although these CubeSats are very small, they still have a lot of science capabilities onboard. These 10 CubeSats are mounted on a ring-shaped adapter just below the Orion spacecraft on the SLS upper stage, the Interim Cryogenic Upper Stage (ICPS). After Orion separates from the ICPS and heads towards the moon, the CubeSats will separate from the ring over the course of a couple days and travel on their own paths towards the moon.
CubeSats are miniature, standardized satellites that have been largely used as low-cost spacecraft options in low Earth orbit. Recently, these little sats have been used to enhance deep space missions, such as the Mars Cube One (MARCO), which flew two CubeSats to Mars on a flyby mission accompanying the NASA Insight mission in 2018. Just this year, the CAPSTONE mission, which launched onboard an Electron lifter by Rocket Lab, included a CubeSat payload designed to navigate the future Lunar Gateway space station orbit and survey the moon.
The basic design of a CubeSat revolves around a 4 inches (10 centimeter) cube, referred to as a “U” (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm) with a standard mass of less than 3 pounds (1.33 kilograms) per cube. CubeSats come in several standard sizes: 1U, 3U, 6U, 12U, and 16U. From the name, it can be inferred that a 6U CubeSat is composed of six 10 cm cubes. Other variations are possible.
CubeSats have become invaluable tools to test new technologies and collect data in space. CubeSats reduce launch costs in two important ways: they are inexpensive to build because they are smaller, lightweight, and standardized with a relatively large supply chain for commercial supplies; and the cost of launching a single CubeSat is relatively low compared to the cost of sending larger spacecraft or instruments into space, especially with the use of rideshare mission (being able to launch many satellites on a single launch vehicle).
Despite their size, CubeSats can have huge science returns and are the satellite design of choice for universities, startups, and even constellation developers for performing low-cost science and technology demonstrations.
Each of the CubeSats launched on Artemis I will contain science and technology that will help pave the way for future human exploration of the Moon and deep space. A total combined mass of the ten 6U payloads is less than 250 pounds (115 kg) — a tiny fraction of the massive Orion spacecraft. Originally, NASA had selected 13 CubeSats to join the Artemis I flight in 2016 and 2017 (back when launch was expected in 2018); however, three of these small satellites faced issues during development, leaving them unable to fly.
It is important to note that the ten CubeSats that are flying have been packed into their deployers and in the adapter since July and September of last year. Originally expecting a late 2021 or 2022 Artemis I launch, about half of these satellites have not had their batteries recharge due to design and access constraints. But that is okay. The primary objective of Artemis I is to test SLS and Orion. Any additional science generated from these tiny sats is just an added bonus!
The 10 CubeSats that are strapped in and ready for launch on Artemis I are:
ArgoMoon by the Italian Space Agency and Italian company Argotec: This 6U CubeSat will test and demonstrate close proximity maneuvers around the ICPS after deployment and capture high resolution images of the upper stage for documentation and assessment. This mission was recharged before SLS stacking.
BioSentinel by NASA Ames Research Center: Studies human factors within deep space environments and will investigate the affects of radiation on living organisms. This CubeSat carries dry yeast cells that will be rehydrated in space to observe changes that occur as a result of radiation exposure over a long period of time. This satellite was recharged.
CubeSat to study Solar Particles (CuSP) by the Southwest Research Institute: CuSP will study the impact of solar particle events on the magnetosphere and ionosphere of Earth in order to better understand how to protect Earth’s inhabitants from the effects of space weather. This satellite was not recharged.
EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft (EQUULEUS) by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the University of Tokyo: Imaging Earth’s plasmasphere, a region of the Earth’s magnetosphere located above the ionosphere and consisting of low-energy (cool) plasma, the EQUULEUS spacecraft will travel to the Lunar-Earth L2 Lagrange point beyond the far side of the moon. A Lagranage point is a location in space where the gravitational pull of two celestial bodies balances out so that an object placed in that location will stay in the same place relative to both bodies. Beyond studying the plasmasphere, the spacecraft will also collect data from observations of impacts on the far side of the moon. This satellite did have its batteries recharged.
Lunar IceCube from Morehead State University: Determines the amount of water frozen into permanently shadowed craters of the Moon and in the lunar exosphere using an infrared spectrometer to determine habitability potential and search for ice deposits that could be used for future lunar exploration. This mission was unable to be charged before SLS stacking.
LunaH-Map from Arizona State University: Maps the presence in high resolution of near-surface hydrogen molecules in craters across the entire lunar South Pole with neutron spectrometers. This mission could not be recharged before SLS stacking.
Lunar Infrared Imaging (LunIR) by Lockheed Martin: This CubeSat will perform a close flyby of the moon and capture thermal imagery of the lunar surface before continuing on its way into a heliocentric orbit beyond the Earth-Moon system. Once in deep space, the spacecraft will also demonstrate subsystems and technologies for operations in high radiation environments for smallsats. This spacecraft could not be recharged before SLS stacking.
Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Mashall Space Flight Center: Traveling to near-Earth asteroids, this mission will demonstrate controllable solar sail technology that allows a small space vehicle to use sunlight as its source of energy for propulsion. NEA will rendezvous with asteroids and take pictures to characterize their surfaces. This CubeSat was recharged before launch.
OMOTENASHI from JAXA and the University of Tokyo: Demonstrating the world’s smallest lunar lander, the CubeSat will attempt a hard but controlled landing on the moon’s surface. It will use a small solid rocket motor to perform this landing “hoverslam.” Once on the surface, OMOTENASHI will study the surrounding lunar environment and measure its properties. This CubeSat was recharged before launch integration.
Team Miles by Miles Space and Fluid & Reason LLC: This privately funded mission will demonstrate the use of plasma thrusters in deep space and will be competing as part of a NASA design competition. This mission opted out of recharging system batteries after receiving information of the battery state (85% charged).
Artemis I will undoubtedly be launching some of the most complex CubeSats ever attempted, but it’s important not to overstate the difficulty of the task ahead. However, the teams and scientists behind these missions know the inherent risk they are taking. CubeSats, due to their relatively short history (coming into prominence in 2012), are still in the formative stages of their development, with new advances in electronics and component miniaturization occurring every year. Although CubeSats have certainly come a long way in the industry, they still have a fairly high failure ratio with a mission success rate of about 75% in 2019. It is important to note, that although potentially detrimental to battery health, the battery states of those CubeSats that did not have their batteries recharged before launch can still be okay since their solar arrays are designed to deploy by springs as soon as they exit their deployers. So, even if the batteries are too low to start up the satellite subsystems, they will still have the chance to start.
Each of these missions has years of development and testing with some providing teaching opportunities to more than 50 students. For me, I am confident in the developers’ capabilities to build a reliable system and to get a science return. Let us not forget that the primary objective of Artemis I is to demonstrate and mature the SLS and Orion spacecraft ahead of humanity’s return to the moon. Any science returned by these tiny science generators will be icing on the cake with a successful 42 day round trip made by Orion.
Regardless of their mission success, it will be amazing to witness these small satellites flying out to the moon for the first time ever and making the push to further understand our place in the solar system and beyond.
Thanks for reading this article! Please leave a comment below with your feedback and if you have any questions. If you liked this article, here are some other articles you may enjoy related to the Artemis I launch:
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Aerospace Engineer, space avionics developer, and big space enthusiast. Check back for stories about space, space exploration, software, and technology topics.
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Aerospace Engineer, space avionics developer, and big space enthusiast. Check back for stories about space, space exploration, software, and technology topics.
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