As part of the Artemis 1 mission, set to launch on Aug. 29, 2022, the Space Launch System (SLS) — the most powerful rocket ever built — is about to catapult the Orion spacecraft further into space than any human-built vehicle intended to carry astronauts has ventured before.
The mission will serve as a test before future Artemis missions send humans to the moon and beyond, in the process delivering milestones like the first woman and person of color to walk on the lunar surface, and the first human to step foot on Mars.
Yet, not everything about the Artemis 1 mission is about breaking records. The SLS will also be carrying a secondary payload, a series of shoeboxes sized satellites that it will jettison as it travels towards the moon. Though the SLS can host 17 of these diminutive science experiments, the Artemis 1 payload will be comprised of 10 units.
Though small in size, don't underestimate the big implications these tiny cubesats could have for science. They will collect results that help guide future projects, protect our pioneering astronauts, and help monitor our world.
Robert Lea holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.'s Open University. Robert has contributed to Space.com for over a decade, and his work has appeared in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space and more.
The cubesats and their missions
Cubesats are remarkable for their efficiency, low cost, and compatibility with larger payloads. Though they are usually restricted in mass to between 2.2 and 22 lbs (1 and 10 kilograms), cubesats are usually measured and classified by 'units' (U) with each unit representing a cube of 10 centimeters (3.93 inches) each side.
The majority of cubesats on the Artemis 1 mission are 6U in size, stringing together six of these units resulting in dimensions around that of 7.8 in x 3.93 in x 13.4 in (20 cm × 10 cm × 34.05 cm).
One of the key goals of the Artemis missions is the establishment of an infrastructure in space, on and around the moon, that allows for longer space missions. The key watchword 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 out' water and other resources both on the moon and above the lunar surface, which could aid our astronauts in future missions. In-situ resources reduce the amount of raw materials that need to be carried into space making missions more cost-effective.
Water on the moon could even be used to generate rocket fuel to be used to return to Earth or venture further into the solar system.
IceCube, which weighs just 31 lbs (14 kg), will have a seven-hour orbit around the moon, propelled by an ion propulsion system. During this orbit to protect its instrumentation from solar radiation, a small 'garage door' slides open allowing just an hour of observations of the lunar surface in each orbit.
Lunar water exists mostly in the form of ice and the Lunar IceCube carries a NASA instrument called Broadband InfraRed Compact High-Resolution Exploration Spectrometer (BIRCHES) that can investigate the distribution of this water across the moon.
BIRCHES is also capable of detecting water in the thin atmosphere of the moon — the exosphere. This could help us better understand how regolith on the moon — analogous to soil on Earth — absorbs and releases water.
This will help map the changes that the moon is undergoing, which NASA says is key to a sustained moon presence.
Several other Artemis 1 cubesats will join IceCube in taking a good look at the moon.
Designed by researchers and students at Arizona State University, the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map) will investigate hydrogen abundances in the moon's shadowy regions.
This will include creating a map of hydrogen at a spatial scale of around 6 miles (about 10 kilometers) and assessing the amount of this element locked up in water-ice lying in deep shadowy lunar craters.
Also a 6U cubesat, the LunaH-Map's science mission will last 60 days with the tiny spacecraft making 141 highly elliptical orbits of the moon at a low altitude that will bring it as close as 3 to 6 miles (4.8 to 9.6 km) from the lunar surface. This orbit will be centered on the Shackleton Crater — an impact crater located at the moon's south pole.
LunaH-Map's main instrument is a neutron detector that uses a material Cs2YLiCl6:Ce (CLYC) to detect neutrons — normally locked up in atomic nuclei with protons — and assess if they have interacted with the element hydrogen.
NASA says that during its two-month operation LunaH-Map will map the hydrogen content of the entire south pole of the moon, also measuring bulk hydrogen content a meter below the lunar surface.
Lockheed Martin's 6U cubesat LunIR — previously known as SkyFire — will also be making fly-bys of the moon mapping its surface.
LunIR will deploy from the European Space Agency (ESA) provided interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) and contains technology that will capture images of the lunar surface helping to characterize its composition structure and how it interacts with space.
This data could help select landing sites for future moon missions as well as assisting in the assessment of potential risks to astronauts venturing to the lunar surface for longer stays.
Following its flyby, LunIR will perform maneuvers and operations that could also help design future space missions, both crewed and robotic.
The Outstanding Moon exploration Technologies demonstrated by Nano Semi-Hard Impactor (OMOTENASHI) CubeSat sets out to prove that lunar landers can come in all sizes and costs.
The Japanese Aeroscape Exploration Agency (JAXA) created 6U cubesat, which weighs 27.7 lbs (12.6 kg) in total, will eject a 2.2 lb (1 kg) nanolander powered by a disposable solid rocket motor weighing 13.2 lbs (6 kg), which will descend to the lunar surface.
Shortly before impact, the nanolander will be traveling at about 98 feet per second (30 meters per second), and will jettison the sold rocket and will then deploy a two-lobed airbag to cushion it as it lands.
Once on the moon, OMOTENASHI — whose name means 'hospitality' in Japanese — will measure lunar surface radiation and investigate soil mechanics using accelerometers.
These devices measure vibration or acceleration by using a change in mass to 'squeeze' a piezoelectric material and create an electrical charge that is proportional to the force the material experiences.
The moon isn't the only object around Earth that Artemis 1 cubesats will be investigating.
Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) will be the target of observations made by NEA Scout, a robotic reconnaissance mission to fly by and return data from an asteroid.
NEA Scout will deploy from the SLS after it has launched the Orion craft towards the moon, beginning a two-year journey for the 6U-sized cubesat to a target asteroid.
A key element of the mission will be a solar sail — a thin and light material that uses photons from the sun and their momentum to propel the small craft.
Despite unfolding from a shoebox-sized cubesat the unfurled sail reaches a size of 925 square feet (86 square meters) and it is supported by four 24-ft (7.3 m) metallic booms. This large surface area is needed to capture a large number of photons, each of which only imparts a tiny amount of thrust.
Once it reaches a distance of between around 25,000 to 31,000 miles (approximately 40,000–50,000 km) from its target it will identify the asteroid. At a distance of between 62 and 75 miles (100 to 120 km) from the asteroid, NEA Scout will use its camera, NEACam — a 20 megapixel CMOS image sensor with an array size of 3840 x 3840 pixels — to capture images to send back to Earth.
NASA says this will help ascertain the properties of the asteroid like its position in space, shape, and rotation, as well as measuring its surrounding dust and debris field. This information could prove useful for future missions that aim to land on NEAs.
The EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft (EQUULEUS) is also a cubesat created for Artemis 1 by JAXA with assistance from the University of Tokyo. Its aim is to understand the radiation in the space environment around Earth.
EQUULEUS will use low-energy trajectory control techniques including a water propulsion system with a low thrust that uses very little propellant fluid to sit the craft in an orbit between the Earth and the moon.
From here the cubesat will observe Earth's plasmasphere, the inner region of the magnetosphere consisting of cool plasma — gas in which atoms have been stripped of electrons.
As well as helping us better understand low-energy trajectory control techniques and lunar flybys in the Earth-moon region, EQUULEUS could provide vital information that helps protect electronics and astronauts during long-term space missions.
Another Artemis 1 cubesat is also poised to collect information that could potentially protect astronauts from radiation.
BioSentinel is a project that will allow scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center, in California's Silicon Valley, to better understand the effect of radiation on organisms in space.
The mission uses yeast, familiar to bakers and brewers, as a 'model organism' to understand how high-energy radiation can cause breaks in DNA — which carries genetic information in the cells of all living organisms, including humans.
Yeast was selected because not only do researchers understand it very well, the way damage in its DNA is repaired is similar to how the process takes place in humans.
Two strains of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae — one of which repairs DNA damage much better than the other — will be triggered to grow once BioSentinel is outside of Earth's magnetosphere, which helps protects us from harsh solar radiation.
The 6U cubesat weighing around 30 pounds (13 kg) will conduct its mission for around 18 months and will fly past the moon on its way to orbit the sun. The project represents the first time in 40 years that organisms have been sent into deep space.
The cubesat to study Solar Particles (CuSP) will also be orbiting the sun after it is carried out of Earth's atmosphere.
The role of CuSP will be to study radiation from the star, solar winds, and solar events which can have effects on and around Earth such as interfering with radio communications, damaging satellite electronics, and even knocking our power grids.
The 6U cubesat carries three instruments that can measure this 'space weather' before it reaches Earth striking its magnetosphere and potentially triggering a harmful geomagnetic storm.
The Suprathermal Ion Spectrograph (SIS) detects and sorts low-energy solar energetic particles, while the Miniaturized Electron and Proton Telescope (MERiT) counts high-energy solar particles, and the Vector Helium Magnetometer (VHM) monitors the strength and direction of magnetic fields.
Together the three CuSP instruments will allow scientists to track how the environment of space between the sun and Earth changes and how these changes affect our planet. CuSP also provides researchers with a way to test how a network of space monitoring cubesats would function, revealing the potential for a host of space weather monitoring cubesats.
The cubesat Team Miles has had one of the most interesting journeys to the launchpad of all of Artemis 1's secondary payloads, and its journey after launch should prove just as thrilling.
The project was selected to join up with Orion and the SLS after its citizen scientist designers at Miles Space and Fluid & Reason, LLC, entered it into NASA's CubeQuest Challenge.
Team Miles will use innovative plasma iodine thrusters — which utilize low-frequency electromagnetic waves as propulsion — to travel around 37 million miles (60 million km) from Earth on a trajectory towards Mars in what team leader Wesley Faler describes as a "drag race to the moon."
Traveling further than any craft of this diminutive size has gone before, the 6U-sized cubesat flown by a sophisticated onboard computer system will also test software for radio communications with Earth.
ArgoMoon is a 6U cubesat designed by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and selected by the ESA to fly with Artemis 1. After deploying from the ICPS it will become one of the first European cubesats to leave Earth's orbit.
Not only will ArgoMoon demonstrate the ability to perform operations by the ICPS, but it will also collect data from the stage as it sends Orion towards the moon, and as it launches its other cubesat secondary payload.
The fact that ArgoMoon will record images of the ICPS as it performs these duties means that its contribution to Artemis 1 could help define the history of one of the most important missions in the history of space exploration, and humanity's next step into the universe.
The Artemis mission wouldn't be possible with the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket devised by humanity.
The Orion spacecraft will journey further into space than any other craft intended for humans.
"Artemis." NASA (2022).
"Artemis 1: About the CubeSat Payload." Space Center Houston (2021).
"Lunar IceCube Mission to Locate, Study Resources Needed for Sustained Presence on Moon." NASA (2019).
"LunaH-Map: University-Built CubeSat to Map Water-Ice on the Moon." NASA (2016).
"LunaH-map." Arizona State University (2022).
"NASA Selects Lockheed Martin's LunIR CubeSat for Artemis 1 Secondary Payload." NASA (2016).
"What is BioSentinel?" NASA (2022)
"What is a CubeSat and other Picosatellites?" Nanosats Database (2022).
"ArgoMoon." eoPortal (2022).
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Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.