Tiny `LunarCubes` could help explore moon at cheap

Ultra-small and lightweight satellites –‘CubeSats’ are now being considered for use to further moon exploration.

Washington: Ultra-small and lightweight satellites – ‘CubeSats’, which have demonstrated their agility over the years to carry out space research in low-Earth orbit, typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics, are now being considered for use to further moon exploration.

When CubeSats emerged onto the scene, and ideas began to materialize about their uses in Earth orbit, the prevailing thought was “that’s impossible, you’ll never do it,” said Russell Cox, director of research for Flexure Engineering in Greenbelt, Md.

Now that scads of CubeSat missions have been flown or are on the books, the idea of these diminutive spacecraft heading for the moon has taken off, Cox said.

Robotic spacecraft launched by multiple nations, Cox said, have found the moon to be a much more dynamic and complex place than anyone expected.

According to him, these missions have generated more questions than answers so there are many scientific problems where one good, simple measurement could dramatically improve our understanding.

“Lots of people are going to the moon. It``s not all that hard to get there,” CBS News quoted Cox as saying.

“And every single mission in the last five years has found startlingly new information. There are lots and lots of things to think about,” he said.

Several things are happening that can advance a LunarCubes program into being.

Firstly, there are numbers of boosters already outfitted to deploy CubeSats into Earth orbit.

Secondly, every geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellite placement is a potential lunar mission starting point. Also toss in the advent of weak stability boundary transfer orbits from GEO to lunar orbit.

Lastly, there’s the Google Lunar X Prize - the 30-million-dollar competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. There could be multiple lander opportunities in the coming years, and they are all looking for science payloads, Cox said.

“Many people are completely unaware that this capacity is becoming available,” Cox said.

A trio of science briefings on LunarCubes will be staged between October and April of next year, he added, to provide a thorough introduction to the topic and to start building bridges between science and technical communities.


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