NASA Lunar Imaging CubeSat – SkyFire – to ride with EM-1

NASA’s aim to provide a ride to numerous secondary payloads on the debut mission for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion has resulted in Lockheed Martin signing a contract with NASA to deploy the SkyFire lunar flyby mission. The 6U CubeSat will join a team of 13 small spacecraft that will ride uphill on the Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) flight in 2018.

EM-1 Cubesats:

Since 2015, NASA noted a wish for secondary payloads – in the form of Cubesats – to join the debut mission for SLS and Orion.

They will ride on Orion’s stage adapter before deployment.

2015-11-27-183920With hardly any performance hit for what will be NASA’s new Heavy Lift rocket – these Cubesats provide a secondary role of investigating lunar and human biology aspects of spaceflight as well as Near Earth Asteroid reconnaissance.

A major factor contributing to the decision to co-manifest small Cubesat payloads on EM-1 stems from the identification of Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) that need to/should be addressed prior to undertaking human missions into the inner solar system.

The SKGs identified by the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate’s (HEOMD’s) Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division relate to “human health/performance in high-radiation environments, lunar resource potential, and human NEA mission target identification and interaction with NEA surface.”

From this drive, concepts chosen including BioSential, Lunar Flashlight, and Near Earth Asteroid Scout.

On Monday, Lockheed Martin announced it had signed a contract with NASA to deploy SkyFire, a 6U CubeSat planned to launch on EM-1.

2016-08-08-182534“SkyFire’s lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration,” noted John Ringelberg, Lockheed Martin’s SkyFire project manager.

“Partnering with NASA for another element of the Orion and Space Launch System EM-1 flight is very exciting.”

SkyFire is classed as a public-private partnership between Lockheed Martin and NASA.

Lockheed Martin will build the satellite with internal investments, and the newly-signed contract will grant Lockheed Martin access to send the satellite to the moon aboard the EM-1 launch. NASA will in turn receive data from the mission

The Lockheed Martin development team primarily consists of early-career engineers in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, which will be tasked with building a “groundbreaking” infrared camera that will take high quality images with a lighter, simpler unit.

Its “proving ground” of the Moon will involve testing the infrared system on SkyFire to see if it could provide cost-effective studies of a planet’s resources before humans arrive, a direct reference to Mars missions.

Tasks include analyzing soil conditions, determining ideal landing sites and discovering a planet’s most livable areas will be its key area of interest.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” added James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

2015-11-27-183815Being a cubesat, its reduction in mass means lower payload cost and easier maneuverability in space.

“For a small CubeSat, SkyFire has a chance to make a big impact on future planetary space missions,” Mr. Russell added. “With less mass and better instruments, we can get closer, explore deeper and learn more about the far reaches of our solar system.”

SkyFire is set to be joined on the EM-1 flight by Lunar Flashlight, a Cubesat that will be tasked with understanding the quantity and distribution of water and other volatiles in lunar cold traps.

As has become a major focus for NASA and other space companies looking to mount human expeditions to celestial bodies in the inner solar system, the use of in-situ resources has become a significant point of discussion.

In the case of the moon, the primary in-situ resource is water.

2015-11-27-183854To this end, Lunar Flashlight will “Locate ice deposits in the Moon’s permanently shadowed craters” and will “identify favorable locations for in-situ utilization,” per HEOMD documentation.

In this way, Lunar Flashlight will follow-up on recent revelations regarding the presence of water ice in the moon’s permanently shadowed polar regions as well as anomalous reflectivity observations in lunar regions of “coldest year-round temperatures” that could very well be water frost.

Lunar Flashlight will conduct its mission through the use of four 50-75 watt pulsed Lasers that will “illuminate 1 square kilometer of the lunar surface and define the four spectral bands of interest” for the mission.

Onboard the spacecraft, a two-channel near Infrared spectrometer will then observe the detected spectral bands from 1-2mm at a lunar altitude of 20 kilometers.

Overall, this will require Lunar Flashlight to be a 6U Cubesat capable of producing a 290 m/s delta V through a green propellant system.

All 13 cubesat passengers are set to be confirmed before the end of the year.

(Images via Lockheed Martin and NASA).

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