NASA Wants To Launch Tiny Moon Satellites On Its Next-Generation Rocket

As the space community counts down the days to the long-awaited Dec. 4 uncrewed launch of the Orion spacecraft — that vehicle that is supposed to bring astronauts into the solar system in the next decade — NASA is already thinking ahead to the next space test in 2017 or 2018.

Riding atop the new Space Launch System rocket, if all goes to plan, will be a suite of CubeSats that will explore the Moon as Orion makes its journey out to our largest closest celestial neighbor. NASA announced details of the $5 million “Cube Quest” challenge yesterday (Nov. 24).

CubeSats are tiny satellites that are so small that they are often within the reach of universities and similar institutions that want to perform science in space without the associated cost of operating a huge mission. The concept has been so successful that some companies are basing their entire business model on it, such as Planet Labs — a company that is performing Earth observations with the small machines.

NCube-2 cubesat, a typical configuration for this kind of satellite (although the outer skin is missing.) Credit: ARES Institute

The competition will be divided into several parts, including a ground tournament to see if the CubeSats can fly on the SLS, a lunar derby to ensure they can communicate at a distance of 10 times the Earth-moon distance, and a deep-space derby to put the CubeSat in a “stable lunar orbit” and work well there.

“The Cube Quest Challenge seeks to develop and test subsystems necessary to perform deep space exploration using small spacecraft. Advancements in small spacecraft capabilities will provide benefits to future missions and also may enable entirely new mission scenarios, including future investigations of near-Earth asteroids,” NASA stated.

For more details on the competition, check out this link.

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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