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Lunar Flashlight
An artist’s conception shows Lunar Flashlight flying above a crater on the moon. (Credit: NASA)

NASA says it’ll send 13 miniaturized satellites – including a pop-up solar sail and a “lunar flashlight” – beyond Earth orbit when it flies its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket for the first time in 2018.

The main payload for the test flight, known as Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1, is an uncrewed prototype for NASA’s Orion spaceship. The SLS will send Orion into a highly eccentric orbit that ranges beyond the moon and back.

But there’s also room inside the rocket’s adapter ring for a baker’s dozen of CubeSats, boxy spacecraft of a standard size that are becoming increasingly popular for low-cost space missions.

“They’re really on the cutting edge of technology,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said today during a news conference at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Each of the satellites is the size of a large shoebox, measuring about 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep. Seven of the satellites were described at the news conference. Three satellites are still the subject of international negotiations and will have to be unveiled at a later time, NASA said. Three other spots will be filled by the winners of a Cube Quest Challenge that’s still in progress.

The seven satellites include:

  • Near-Earth Asteroid Scout: After deployment, NEA Scout will unfurl a 30-foot-wide solar sail and navigate its way to an asteroid for reconnaissance. The images and data could help scientists plan future missions to near-Earth asteroids, as well as future solar sail missions. “I see a bright future, no pun intended, for solar sails,” said Les Johnson, NEA Scout’s principal investigator.
  • Lunar Flashlight: This mission aims to shine near-infrared lasers into the moon’s shaded polar regions from lunar orbit. An onboard spectrometer will measure surface reflection and composition – potentially shedding additional light on the nature of the moon’s water ice. Such ice could be used as a resource for future lunar missions.
  • Lunar IceCube: Another CubeSat will make a wider survey of the moon’s water ice, as well as any water vapor or liquid water that might be present, using a miniaturize infrared spectrometer. The project is led by scientists at Morehead State University in Kentucky.
  • LunaH-Map: The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper will use a different approach to produce a high-resolution map of the water ice distribution in the moon’s south polar region. Two neutron spectrometers will take an up-close look at the area, which could serve as the site of a future lunar settlement. Arizona State University is playing the lead role in the mission.
  • Skyfire: Lockheed Martin’s nano-satellite will gather data about the moon’s surface and heat distribution during a lunar flyby. The mission serves as a test for future low-cost missions that could survey potential landing sites on the moon and Mars.
  • BioSentinel: Samples of genetically modified yeast will be placed aboard a mini-satellite and studied to gauge the effects of solar radiation and cosmic rays in deep space over an extended period of time. Those effects will be compared with samples studied on Earth and aboard the International Space Station. The experiment could suggest ways for future human explorers to cope with the deep-space radiation environment.
  • CuSP: A mission led by Southwest Research Institute will study the flow of solar particles toward Earth from its vantage point in interplanetary space. The insights gained from CuSP (which stands for “Cubesat to study Solar Particles”) could help scientists get a better handle on potentially damaging space weather.

The CubeSats will be deployed after the Orion has separated from the SLS’s upper stage, using a series of spring-loaded dispensers inside the Orion stage adapter. After deployment, each mini-satellite will turn its transmitter on and communicate with ground stations on Earth.

Meanwhile, the uncrewed Orion capsule will go on a three-week flight that ranges as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon, to test the systems that astronauts will use during future deep-space missions. After a series of maneuvers, the Orion will splash down in the Pacific for recovery.

If all proceeds according to plan, the first crewed Orion mission would take place in the first half of the 2020s.

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