ESA Narrows Finalists for Lunar CubeSat Mission

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

PARIS (ESA PR) — If you could fly a CubeSat to the Moon, what could such a tiny satellite do there? ESA posed this question – and now four proposals will be studied in more detail for possible flight over the coming decade.

These miniature missions variously involve probing lunar radiation, surveying the radio sky over the far side of the Moon, mapping minerals and frozen gases within shadowed craters, and detecting flashes from meteoroids striking the surface.

“Built around standard 10 cm units, CubeSats are already proving their worth near to Earth,” explains ESA’s Roger Walker. “We are now considering their uses further afield as part of future lunar exploration.”

Four teams are now being funded until this autumn by ESA to develop their ideas.

MoonCARE, a trio of six-unit CubeSats, would measure the radiation environment and its effects on microorganisms with an eye to building closed-loop life support systems for future human crews.

The CubeSat Low-frequency Explorer of three 12-unit satellites would create the first radio telescope over the radio-quiet far side to image the sky below 30 MHz – not measurable from Earth – as a stepping stone to a larger array.

The 12-unit Volatile and Mineralogy Mapping Orbiter would chart the Moon’s surface minerals and frozen gases such as water ice to 10 m resolution using a ‘laser radar’ to peer into shadowed regions at the poles.

The Lunar Meteoroid Impacts Observer would be a single 12-unit CubeSat carrying a sophisticated camera to capture the flashes of meteoroids impacting the far side to complement existing near-side monitoring and build a complete picture of the hazards facing future moonwalkers.

Call for the Moon

Roger adds, “As a way of bringing together lunar exploration researchers with the CubeSat community, we put out an open call to European companies, universities and research centres.

“We received a very large response from joint academic–industrial teams across Europe, highlighting the strong interest in this topic, and many high-quality proposals were received – so the competition was tough.”

The challenge assumes the delivery of the CubeSats into lunar orbit and the relay of their data back to Earth are taken care of by a larger ‘mothership’, allowing the teams to focus resources on discovery.

The teams will compete for the final prize at a workshop in December, when there is an opportunity to design their mission in detail in collaboration with ESA experts at the cutting-edge Concurrent Design Facility.

“Regardless of the winner, the challenge sets Europe up to be able to take rapid advantage of lunar flight opportunities as they arise,” adds Roger. “These are expected with future NASA Orion circumlunar flights and those of commercial operators.

“This current challenge – building on our previous challenge to propose deep-space CubeSats for the Asteroid Impact Mission – also paves the way to direct exploration by standalone deep-space CubeSats.”

Lunar exploration

Click here for a detailed interactive guide covering the past, present and future of lunar exploration.

  • JamesG

    Funny how they can still call a U-12 a “cubesat”. I guess we should call the ISS a U-1090?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    CubeSat implies a family of electronics and instrumentation quasi-standards that you can buy/design into. Some ‘families’ have more flight experience than others. It’s much more fuzzy from the early 2000’s when they were cubes. It turns out size and mass are not the big constraints, or throw mass, rather it’s the primary payloads willingness or the insurer’s willingness to take the risk of having active ‘ballast’. Primaries don’t like to ride share, they don’t even like to go by the old DC “Slugging” rules. Since you could not get a ride by being small, a lot of ‘cube’ sats have grown because they could at no expense in ability to get a ride above what they already had to go through.

  • Aerospike

    A 12-unit cubesat in 2 by 2 by 3 arrangement with 20x20x30cm is still tiny as far as satellites go.

    But I do get your point. Is there actually a “limit” for how many units a cubesat can have, before it has to be called something else? (smallsat, etc.)

  • Kapitalist

    But this seems to be changing. With ULA leading it on Atlas V, it seems. They offer Rideshare for a continuum of payloads from the tiniest secondary to the primary. And even propulsion services to get them to dedicated orbits. Which I think preemptively kills the dedicated small sat launcher market. In this link they market it at FISO:

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    There have been a few attempts over the past 20 years to turn ride share on, none of them have really taken hold. If you include the old shuttle Get Away Special program, the ‘problem’ goes even further back. In spite of even a successful ride share program it seems the number of folks who would launch a small satellite, if they could, is large enough that the small LV’s like Electron won’t be lacking for payloads. Unless someone with a booster the size of a Falcon 1 e comes along offering a mass launch and dump service like what the Indians did last year. That would really hurt the likes of Rocket Lab, Vector, and Generation Orbit.

  • Kapitalist

    These New Space companies don’t seem to be on the stock market, so we have difficulties actually placing our bets by putting our money where our mouths are. But I would rhetorically bet on bigger reusable launchers with propulsive capabilities (on things like ESPA-rings) over dedicated tiny launchers.

    If you want your secondary payload to go to GEO, get a hike on a GEO launch, there are a couple of those each month. If you want a polar or Sun synchronous orbit, get a secondary hike on any of those regular launches. When do you want to launch into a dedicated orbit at a dedicated time that no regular large launcher can get you to? For some acute military application maybe, but the commercial market for dedicated small launchers must be tiny.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’ve thought the same thing for a long time. Excluding re-use (since Space X steers clear of small sat launch as a business practice.), it’s just not panned out that way yet, and we’ve been at this for almost 2 decades. Maybe Space X will develop a ‘corn cob’ a sort of super MIRV bus that carries 10’s to 100’s of small sats and shuttles from orbit to orbit and dumping them as it goes. I donno, I expected something like that for a long time and it has just not happened. Same with ESPA, that’s been operational for about a decade now, and you don’t see it used a lot. Meanwhile colleges, and universities have satellites waiting in clean storage. There has been a slow development I’ve noticed over the past 5 years or so, businesses that are funded have much less of a problem launching their satellites. So that’s a very positive development.