While the splashdown of the Orion spacecraft marks the end of a successful lunar voyage, not everything has gone to plan for Artemis I.
As part of the mission which spent almost 26 days in space after blasting off from the Kennedy Space Centre on 16 November, NASA packed a secondary payload as part of the mission’s launch: 10 low-cost CubeSats.
“Low-cost” is relative. Each of these breadbin-sized satellites cost millions of dollars, but what they offer scientists are cheap, high-risk, high-reward technology to conduct experiments in space.
Most of these mini missions are now underway, some despite a few hiccups.
However, four have hit snags or failed to fire at all.
CubeSat success stories (so far)
This joint development between NASA and the Italian Space Agency following the successful deployment of the LICIACube during the recent Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission.
Its purpose was to review the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage which sent Orion into on its lunar trajectory after launch.
It then captured images of the Moon and Earth as part of its final duties.
Sent yeast samples into space in the only biological experiment among the CubeSat assignments.
It will monitor how long exposure to space radiation impacts living organisms.
Despite an issue in its early stages of deployment where it began ‘tumbling’, ground teams signalled corrective instructions to the CubeSat and it has now completed its maiden lunar flyby.
The experiment is due to commence in the coming weeks.
The EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft, built by the Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), is on its way to the second Earth-moon Lagrangian Point as part of a demonstration of low-energy trajectory control techniques.
In simple terms, Lagrangian points are positions in space where gravitational and centrifugal forces from nearby celestial bodies (like the Earth, Sun and Moon) cancel each other out, and objects at these points tend to remain stationary.
EQUULEUS will also image the Earth’s plasmasphere, and monitor both lunar impact flashes (when meteoroids smack into the Moon’s surface) and near-Earth objects like asteroids and comets.
From Morehead State University, the Lunar IceCube has signalled NASA’s Deep Space Network and is on its way on a unique mission to investigate ice on the moon using infrared spectrometry.
Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper
The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper (LunaH-Map) will join the IceCube on a similar mission.
It has begun transmitting imagery on its quest to measure hydrogen distribution across the Moon’s south pole.
This one is already a winner, thanks to finishing first in NASA’s CubeQuest Challenge – an initiative that invited competitors to build small spacecraft propelled by innovative technology.
The ultimate prize included a ticket to be launched during Artemis I.
The good news for Team Miles is that its signal – and exciting solid iodine plasma thrusters – are firing towards its goal of travelling 96 million kilometers beyond Earth.
Boldly going, going, gone
While most of the CubeSats are looking goods, there have been some disappointments, particularly given the promise of their missions.
CubeSat for Solar Particles
CuSP for short, this CubeSat built by Southwest Research Institute is as good as lost in space.
It was intended to measure solar wind and the magnetic fields emitted from the Sun, however after deploying successfully, NASA’s Deep Space Network has been unable to re-establish contact with the satellite.
Three software reboots detected on CuSP and an “unexplained battery anomaly” were also detected after initial contact.
According to NASA, the CuSP team are still working to re-establish contact.
Lunar Infrared Imaging (or LunIR) was developed by Lockheed Martin – which also designed the Orion spacecraft – as a project to map the lunar surface using infra-red imaging.
Unfortunately, the signal sent back from LunIR was weak and the mission ultimately failed its primary objective, although other experiments were performed.
Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout
One of the big disappointments of the launch was the failure of NASA’s own NEA Scout. It is still yet to signal NASA after separating from the Space Launch System rocket and is assumed lost.
That’s a shame, because its mission was to explore the 18-metre-wide Near-Earth Asteroid 2020 GE and send back images of what would have been the smallest asteroid to be investigated by a spacecraft.
While EQUULEUS is underway, JAXA’s other CubeSat, officially the Outstanding Moon Exploration Technologies demonstrated by Nano Semi-Hard Impactor (or OMOTENASHI for short) failed to live up to its name.
What was intended to be the vehicle for Japan’s debut Moon landing hit a critical snag the moment it was released from the Space Launch System rocket – its solar panels weren’t pointing at the Sun long enough to communicate properly with JAXA mission control.
Originally published by Cosmos as Lost in space? The Artemis CubeSats that have thrived or died
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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