NASA made history on November 16 when the Artemis I mission lifted off from Launch Complex 39B in Cape Canaveral, Florida, en route to the moon. This unmanned mission will test the capabilities of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft in preparation for the long-awaited return to the moon in 2025 (the Artemis III mission). Instead of astronauts, this mission carries a group of mannequins with sensors and has a primary payload consisting of the Callisto technology demonstrator (a human-machine video interface system).
As a secondary payload, Artemis I also carried ten 6U CubeSats beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), three of which were NASA missions designed to conduct experiments. The rest were built by partner space agencies, commercial space companies, research institutes and universities to conduct a variety of unique science experiments in space. While all of these satellites were successfully deployed, six have not made contact with controllers on the ground or have since encountered problems and their whereabouts are unknown.
The three NASA missions include the BioSentinel, designed, built and tested by NASA Ames engineers, which will measure the effects of space radiation on DNA using yeast organisms. The second is the moon flash flight, a technology demonstrator developed at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with support from Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), Goddard Space Flight Center and Georgia Institute of Technology. Its purpose is to search for surface water ice in the permanently shadowed regions near the moon’s south pole and to test new spacecraft technologies.
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The third is the NEA scout Mission developed by NASA Marshal Space Flight Center in partnership with NASA JPL, with support from NASA Goddard, Johnson Space Center and Langley Research Center. The purpose of the mission is twofold: first, to demonstrate the use of solar sails; and second, to demonstrate solar sail navigation through rendezvous (and characterization) of the near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) 2020 GE. The other missions include the following:
Argo Moon: Contributed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and ArgoTec, an Italian aerospace company. This CubeSat aims to observe the preliminary cryogenic propulsion stage of SLS using advanced optics and software imaging systems.
hump: Contributed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), this satellite is a “space weather” mission that will measure solar particles and magnetic fields.
EQUILEUS: This satellite was developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the University of Tokyo to map the Earth’s plasmasphere and study the Earth’s radiation environment from the Earth-Moon L2 point.
Moon Ice Cubes: Developed by Morehead State University, this CubeSat will use an infrared spectrometer to search for lunar water and other volatiles.
LunaH card: Contributed by Arizona State University, this satellite will use neutron spectrometers to create higher fidelity maps of near-surface hydrogen in permanently shadowed craters and other regions near the lunar south pole.
Linux: Developed by Lockheed Martin, this mission will perform advanced infrared imaging of the lunar surface.
OMOTENASHI: Developed by JAXA, this lunar lander (the smallest ever deployed) will study the lunar environment.
Team Miles: Developed by Florida-based aerospace company Miles Space, this demonstrator will test plasma thrusters and compete in NASA’s Deep Space Derby Centennial Challenge (formerly the Cube Quest Challenge).
All ten CubeSats were successfully deployed by the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), an adapter attached to the upper stage of the SLS. On November 18, NASA officials confirmed that ArgoMoon, Biosentinel, Equuleus, LunaH-Map, and OMOTENASHI were all operational, although OMOTENASHI has had problems since. On November 24, NASA reported that the NEA Scout mission still hadn’t made contact. This prompted mission controllers to extend the CubeSat’s sail ahead of schedule in the hope that it will be visible to ground-based telescopes.
In short, only four satellites were deployed and successfully established communication with their controllers on Earth. The teams behind the remaining six missions are currently researching various solutions and are waiting to learn more. But as time has taught us, this is the nature of CubeSat missions, which inherently involve high risk and high reward. And it might be premature to list all the missions that have encountered problems at this point.
Further Reading: NASA Blogs
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