The mini missions are go. This week, NASA revealed a handful of the 13 CubeSats selected to ride on the Orion spacecraft in 2018.
CubeSats are shoebox-sized satellites that use inexpensive parts, making them popular among students and space agencies alike. Their small size and flexible design mean they are an attractive way for NASA to gather more information for future crewed space missions.
“They used to just be a dream,” said Dava Newman, NASA deputy administrator, at a press conference on 2 February. “They’re efficient. They’re cost effective. They’re really showing us how to do space exploration in a new way.”
Filling in the blanks
The selected CubeSats will ride on the first combined launch of the Orion capsule, which is designed to carry humans on long space missions, and the heavy-lifting Space Launch System rocket.
One will be equipped with a solar sail and sent on a reconnaissance mission to a nearby asteroid that is about 100 metres in diameter. A camera will photograph about 85 per cent of the asteroid’s surface, while other instruments will collect data on its structural features, how fast it is spinning and whether or not it is surrounded by dust.
Such information may help fill in the blanks for future crewed trips to an asteroid, said Jitendra Joshi at NASA Headquarters. “All these things will help us design future human spacecraft that will afford us a safe mission,” he says.
Think outside the box
Another CubeSat will act as a “biosentinel”, sent off on an 18-month-long mission into deep space. Its job will be to gauge the health risk to astronauts there from solar particles or galactic cosmic rays, by measuring what happens to an actual biological passenger: genetically modified yeast. A miniaturised sensor will also record the type and amount of radiation that the sentinel encounters.
Several other CubeSats will be tasked with surveying the moon from lunar orbit, searching for volatile elements and different forms of water that might be useful for future astronauts in need of extra resources.
NASA plans to solicit additional teams to build and deliver CubeSats through its $5 million Cube Quest challenge. The agency is also talking with several international groups about bringing their creations along on Orion.
A solid rocket booster test for the Orion mission is planned for May of this year.