Cubesats are miniaturized satellites used for space-based science, exploration, Earth observation, relay communication and more. Cubesat efficiency, low cost, and compatibility with larger payloads offer opportunities for increased science projects. Cubesats often catch rides into space via launch vehicles (LVs). For example, the SLS mentioned earlier has the capacity to accommodate 11 6U-sized cubesats, which will deploy once the Orion spacecraft separates from the launch rocket and on a specified timeline based on their mission objectives.
NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division has selected three secondary payloads (cubesats) to launch on SLS. The three mission cubesat projects are named the BioSentinel, Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout and Lunar Flashlight.
The BioSentinel mission will be the first-time living organisms have traveled to deep space in more than 40 years, according to the NASA website. The cubesat spacecraft will operate in the deep space radiation environment throughout its 18-month mission. BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep-space radiation on living organisms over long durations beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Before sending astronauts to any new space environments, robotic scouts should survey the destination and learn about the risks and challenges posed to future human explorers, explains the NASA website. Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid using a CubeSat and solar sail propulsion, which offers navigation agility during cruise for approaching the target. Propelled by sunlight, NEA Scout will flyby and observe a small asteroid (<300 feet in diameter), taking pictures and observing its position in space among other things.
Pioneering space will only be possible if humans can learn to live off the land, notes the NASA website. Resources at destinations in space, such as atmospheres and water ice, can be broken down into their component molecules and used as building materials, propellant, oxygen for humans to breath and even drinking water. Finding the best location for these resources is the mission of the Lunar Flashlight cubesat. This tiny spacecraft will demonstrate this scouting capability from lunar orbit by performing multiple passes of the surface to look for ice deposits and identifying favorable locations.