As part of the Artemis 1 mission, set to launch on August 29, 2022, the Space Launch System (SLS) — the most powerful rocket ever built — will propel the Orion spacecraft into space longer than any human-made vehicle. The adventure of carrying astronauts has been done before.
The mission will serve as a test before future Artemis missions send humans to the moon and beyond, in the process of delivering milestones such as the first woman and person of color to walk on the lunar surface and the first human to set foot on Mars.
Still, not everything about the Artemis 1 mission is about breaking records. The SLS will also carry a secondary payload, a series of shoebox-sized satellites that it will drop as it travels toward the Moon. Although SLS can host 17 of these smaller science experiments, the Artemis 1 payload will consist of 10 units.
Although small in size, don’t underestimate the big impact these tiny cubesats can have for science. They will collect results that will help guide future projects, protect our pioneering astronauts, and help observe our world.
CubeSats are a type of nano-satellite, a miniature spacecraft with great potential for space-based science, exploration, engineering support, Earth observation and relay communications.
CubeSats are notable for their performance, low cost, and compatibility with large payloads. Although they are typically limited in mass to between 2.2 and 22 lbs (1 and 10 kilograms), cubesats are measured and classified by ‘units’ (U), and each unit represents a cube 10 centimeters (3.93 in) on each side.
Most of the cubesats on the Artemis 1 mission are 6U in size, with six of these units joined together, resulting in dimensions of 7.8 in x 3.93 in x 13.4 in (20 cm × 10 cm × 34.05 cm).
One of the main objectives of the Artemis mission is to establish infrastructure in space, on and around the Moon, to allow for long space missions. The key word for this ambition is ‘sustainability’.
Developed by Morehead State University in partnership with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Busek Company, the Lunar IceCube 6U cubesat could help achieve this goal.
This CubeSat will use sophisticated instruments to ‘sniff’ water and other resources on the Moon and on the lunar surface, which could help our astronauts in future missions. In-situ resources reduce the amount of raw materials that need to be transported into space making missions more cost-effective.
Water on the moon can also be used to make rocket fuel that can be used to return to Earth or travel further into the solar system.
IceCube, which weighs only 31 lbs (14 kg), will orbit the moon for seven hours, powered by an ion propulsion system. To protect the instruments from solar radiation during these orbits, a small ‘garage door’ is opened allowing only one hour of observation of the lunar surface during each orbit.
The Moon’s water exists mostly as ice, and the Lunar IceCube contains a NASA instrument called the Broadband Infrared Compact High-Resolution Exploration Spectrometer (BIRCHES) that can probe the distribution of this water on the Moon.
BIRCHES is capable of detecting water in the thin lunar atmosphere. This could help us better understand how lunar regolith — analogous to soil on Earth — absorbs and releases water.
It will help map changes in the moon, which NASA says is key to the moon’s continued existence.