Artemis I releases 10 cubesats, including a Moon lander, for technology and research

by Justin Davenport

The Artemis I mission, the first flight of the Orion spacecraft and SLS, is now underway after a successful launch from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center at 1:47:44 AM EST (06:47:44 UTC) on Nov. 16.

Artemis I not only launched the Orion spacecraft to the Moon but also 10 6U CubeSats, most massing around 14 kilograms, which were ejected from the ICPS upper stage after the trans-lunar injection burn following launch.

These CubeSats will fly to various destinations including the Moon, asteroids, and interplanetary space. They will study various facets of the Moon and interplanetary travel, ranging from navigation techniques to radiation and biology. One of them is even planned to conduct a soft landing on the lunar surface.

Thirteen CubeSat missions were initially chosen during the 2015-2017 timeframe to fly aboard Artemis I (then known as Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1), but three of them were not ready by the final deadline to process the payloads for launch.

The Lunar Flashlight, the two Cislunar Explorer nanosatellites, and the CU-E3 were unable to be delivered due to various technical and pandemic-related issues. They may be processed for later launch opportunities.

Installation of the NEA Scout and Lunar IceCube satellites in the ICPS upper stage of SLS on July 14, 2022. (Credit: NASA)

Ten CubeSat missions were delivered to the Kennedy Space Center and processed for flight during the summer of 2021. They were mounted on a payload ring on the ICPS second stage along with an avionics unit that controlled the deployment sequence.

Two of these missions are NASA’s and directly developed and operated by NASA centers. Other missions are developed by universities, small and large aerospace companies, and research institutes in cooperation with NASA.

The European Space Agency (ESA), the Italian Space Agency (ASI), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are involved with CubeSat missions on this flight as well.

CubeSats on Artemis I

The Lunar IceCube mission is a collaborative effort between Morehead State University, the Busek Company, and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Lunar IceCube will go into a high-inclination elliptical orbit with a 100-kilometer high perilune (the lowest point of the orbit around the Moon) and map volatiles on the lunar surface.

Lunar IceCube is equipped with one instrument, the Broadband InfraRed Compact High-Resolution Explorer Spectrometer (BIRCHES). BIRCHES will use its spectrometer capability to determine major minerals on the lunar surface.

The Solid Rocket Boosters tumble through the air after separation as the Core Stage RS-25s continue pushing SLS into orbit. (Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)

The NEA (Near Earth Asteroid) Scout was developed by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. It will conduct a flyby of a small asteroid and collect data on its environment, with the help of a solar sail measuring 86 square meters and several lunar flybys to get the spacecraft on the proper path to the asteroid.

Asteroid 2020 GE is the planned target for the NEA Scout, though depending on the exact launch time and date, this could change. 2020 GE is 18 meters in diameter, and this would be the smallest Solar System object ever explored by a spacecraft to date.

NEA Scout’s objective is to fly by and characterize an asteroid between one to 100 meters in diameter. The spacecraft is carrying a science-grade camera with electronics based on the context camera for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3) platform installed on the ISS.

Asteroids like 2020 GE are part of a family of objects that are not well understood, but objects of this size are capable of causing major damage to cities if they hit Earth on the right trajectory. The near-earth population of asteroids may also be mined for resources in the future, for use on Earth or by bases on the Moon or in Earth orbit.

Artist’s impression of the BioSentinel CubeSat in deep space. Credit: NASA

The BioSentinel mission was developed by the NASA Ames Research Center and is the first NASA mission to send living things to cislunar space since December 1972, with three identical biological payloads available as comparison references. This includes one in low Earth orbit aboard ISS. The budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is being carried aboard the CubeSat. 

The yeast will be activated after inflight checkouts and the lunar flyby. It has been selected because of its similarity to human cells and how they repair double-strand breaks in DNA caused by ionizing radiation. The metabolic activity and culture growth of the yeast cells will be evaluated as an indicator of successful damage repair to the cells’ DNA.

The BioSentinel CubeSat also carries sensors to measure radiation in the cislunar environment. The CubeSat will be outside of the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Therefore, it will be exposed to solar wind and cosmic rays that could cause damage to astronauts’ DNA when they venture out that far on future Artemis missions. 

The NASA-funded, Lockheed Martin-built LunIR CubeSat is a technology demonstrator that will conduct spectroscopy and thermography on the lunar surface.

Reflections on achievement. SLS lifts off on its first flight. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

While one image of the Moon from under 20,000 kilometers will be categorized as mission success, the LunIR is planned to take several dozen images of the Moon and map it using an infrared instrument utilizing a closed-cycle mini cryocooler to keep the detector at its optimal temperature.

The cryocooler will be used on the Psyche and Europa Clipper missions and LunIR is set to be its first space test. The cryocooler and infrared sensor will be stress tested once the primary mission is over, by imaging the Moon, the Earth, then the Sun.

Afterward, it will go back to imaging the Moon and Earth, and the detector will be checked for any damage caused by the Sun.

LunIR will conduct a flyby of the Moon but will not enter orbit. It will utilize reaction wheels to point itself in the correct direction at any given time during the flight, but it does not have any other propulsion system. It will end up in a heliocentric orbit.

CuSP CubeSat shown assembled. (Credit: NASA)

The CubeSat for Solar Particles (CuSP) will likewise orbit the Sun, and it will use three instruments to measure radiation and magnetic fields from our local star. The satellite, developed by the Southwest Research Institute, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA JPL, will use a cold gas thruster system for propulsion.

The LunaH-Map satellite is sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). This CubeSat was developed by Arizona State University in Tempe, and its mission is to image the southern polar region of the Moon’s surface. The satellite will map hydrogen-rich compounds like water around Shackleton Crater.

The Italian-built ArgoMoon CubeSat was built to take images of the ICPS upper stage during the CubeSat deployment because the ICPS wasn’t capable of sending telemetry after the trans-lunar injection burn. The Italian company Argotec designed this satellite and built it for the Italian Space Agency.

ArgoMoon is equipped with two cameras and an optical communications system, along with autonomous navigation and nanotechnology demonstrations. The CubeSat will fly by the Moon and enter a heliocentric orbit.

The Team Miles CubeSat will demonstrate hybrid plasma and laser thrusters invented by Wesley Faler, the head of the nonprofit group Fluid and Reason, LLC. The team won the CubeQuest Challenge and their concept was selected for flight.

The Team Miles CubeSat being prepared for launch. (Credit: NASA)

Team Miles will also test an S-band software-defined radio as well as deep space navigation. The technology and intellectual property developed will be used by the commercial company Miles Space.

The EQUULEUS spacecraft was developed by the University of Tokyo and JAXA. It is meant to measure the plasmasphere around Earth as well as to demonstrate water steam propellant.

As part of this demonstration, EQUULEUS will make several lunar flybys and travel to the L2 point in the Earth-Moon system. This is the same Lagrange point used by spacecraft like JWST.

Another Japanese spacecraft rounds out the Artemis I CubeSat complement. OMOTENASHI, Japanese for “welcome,” is a lunar landing demonstration commissioned by JAXA. If it succeeds, Japan would be the fourth nation to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon, after the United States, Soviet Union, and China.

After the CubeSat enters lunar orbit with cold gas thrusters, it will deploy a surface probe to land somewhere on the lunar surface. This probe will be deorbited with a solid rocket motor and is designed to use an airbag and a metal shock absorber to achieve a semi-hard, survivable landing at less than 50 meters per second.

OMOTENASHI’s orbiting module is equipped with a dosimeter developed after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, while both the lander and orbiter are equipped with a 430 MHz UHF radio that can be detected by enthusiasts.

Image from Orion after deployment from the ICPS. (Credit: NASA)

Charging, Launch, and Deployment

Artemis I finally launched on Nov. 16, 2022, after months of delays and two scrubbed attempts in the August-September timeframe. After the installation of the CubeSats in the ICPS upper stage, concerns arose about the effect delays could have on the satellite missions.

The satellites’ onboard batteries were charged before payload installation on the upper stage, but some of them could not be recharged due to a lack of access. After the SLS was rolled back to the VAB in September, some satellites – those that could be accessed – were recharged.

The BioSentinel satellite’s yeast payload was cooled before installation to preserve the viability of the experiment. The effect of the mission’s cumulative delays on BioSentinel’s experiments remains to be seen, as does the effect on the other CubeSats.

After Artemis I’s successful launch and trans-lunar injection burn, the 10 CubeSats were deployed starting four hours after launch and finished the process after eight hours. 

Six CubeSats have been heard from as of publication: EQUULEUS, LunIR, CuSP, LunaH-Map, ArgoMoon, and BioSentinel. It is hoped that if a CubeSat had lost its electrical charge during the mission delays, the spacecraft’s solar arrays would eventually catch sunlight and recharge the craft’s batteries themselves.

Regardless of the success or failure of individual CubeSats, the emergence of this class of spacecraft has enabled the testing of new technologies with less cost and at a faster pace than in the past, though also with a greater risk of failure. As Lockheed Martin LunIR program manager John Ricks stated “we’re taking high risk in the hope of getting this high reward payoff.”

(Lead image: Launch of Artemis I at 1:47 am EST from Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Nathan Barker for NSF)

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