Washington: Armed with an asteroid hunter, lunar flashlight and DNA kit, NASA will launch the unmanned Orion spacecraft using the Space Launch System (SLS) - its largest, most powerful rocket booster ever built - in 2018.
The US space agency plans to use the SLS's massive lift capability to carry nearly a dozen nano-satellites to conduct science experiments beyond low-Earth orbit and eventually, Mars.
The SLS will launch Orion on an uncrewed test flight to a distant retrograde orbit around the moon.
Tucked inside the stage adapter - the ring connecting Orion to the top propulsion stage of the SLS will be 11 self-contained small satellites, each about the size of a large shoebox.
"NASA is taking advantage of a great opportunity to conduct more science beyond our primary focus of this mission," said Jody Singer from the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.
While this new vehicle will enable missions beyond Earth orbit, "we are taking steps to increase the scientific and exploration capability of SLS by accommodating small, CubeSat-class payloads", Singer said.
The secondary payloads are Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout, Lunar Flashlight and BioSentinel.
NEA Scout, using solar sail propulsion, will fly by a small asteroid, taking pictures and making observations that will enhance the current understanding of an the asteroid environment and will yield key information for future astronauts exploring an asteroid.
NASA’s Lunar Flashlight will scout for locations on the lunar surface that are rich in resources that, once broken down into their component molecules, could be used in future exploration, such as building materials, propellant, oxygen and water.
The BioSentinel mission will be the first time living organisms have traveled to deep space in over 40 years and the spacecraft will operate in the deep space radiation environment throughout its 18-month mission.
About 10 minutes after Orion and its service module escape the pull of Earth’s gravity, the two will disconnect and Orion will proceed toward the moon.
Once Orion is a safe distance away, the small payloads will begin to be deployed, all at various times during the flight depending on the particular missions, the space agency said in a statement.
These CubeSats are small nano-satellites designed to be efficient and versatile.
The rocket will be the strongest ever built by NASA.
“We want to take advantage of that design. Flying secondary payloads is something we plan to do for missions to come and provide the science community an opportunity they have not had before,” the statement read.