The first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, likely in late 2018 or early 2019, will serve primarily to demonstrate the massive rocket’s ability to deliver a significant payload – the Orion spacecraft – into lunar orbit . However, amidst the launch fireworks and shakedown mission for the Orion unmanned spacecraft, NASA will also manage to do a little science.
The adapter ring connecting Orion to the rocket will hold 13 pockets for CubeSats, shoebox-sized payloads that have not yet been delivered to deep space in large numbers. Each of those payload operators is working to finalize contracts with NASA for the ride to space, and on Monday, Lockheed Martin announced a few details of its 6U CubeSat, dubbed SkyFire. Lockheed’s payload will capture high-quality images of the moon. And in exchange for the ride to deep space, NASA receives data from the mission.
“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar features, such as areas of solar illumination,” Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator James Russell said in a press release. “We will be able to see new things with sensors that are less expensive to make and send to space.”
Lockheed Martin said it is developing a lighter, simpler infrared camera to fit into the CubeSat payload. Such technology, with cheaper and lighter scientific instruments, could eventually be used in future NASA missions sent much deeper into the solar system. For example, as part of an orbiter mission to Europe in the 2020s, NASA is considering including some CubeSats that could be deployed to fly near the Jovian moon’s surface to gather more information about the nature of its icy, mysterious surface.
Other CubeSat payloads that will be included in NASA’s upcoming Exploration Mission-1 include an IceCube to search for water ice on the moon and BioSentinel to measure the effects of deep space radiation on living organisms. NASA has targeted a launch window from September to November 2018 for the inaugural flight of its big new rocket, but the organization has acknowledged that the date could shift due to unforeseen problems with the SLS rocket or Orion spacecraft.