Morehead State’s Lunar IceCube CubeSat mission will launch on NASA’s flagship Space Launch System (SLS) in 2019.
The project is being led by Morehead State University’s Space Science Center, working with other organizations such as Busek, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and JPL to produce a CubeSat that will be carried on the coming SLS launch.
In the works since 2014, the Lunar IceCube’s mission is to search the surface of the moon for water ice in Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) on its surface and help scientist better understand the transport physics of lunar water ice.
“We know that there’s water on the moon, but it seems to be tied up in regions called PSRs, Permanently Shadowed Regions,” said Dr. Benjamin Malphrus, the executive director at the Space Science Center.
“PSRs are deep-well craters that are so far north or south in latitude and so deep that sunlight has never shone into the bottom of these craters in the history of the solar system, which makes them literally the coldest places ever measured in the solar system. They’re colder than the surface of Pluto.”
The CubeSat is set to fly in 2019 and will take a year to reach its destination before detaching from the craft and operating a year in orbit. It will orbit the moon for approximately six months and will use an infrared spectrometer developed by Goddard to map the distribution of water ice as a function of the lunar day cycle.
The craft will also feature an innovative RF ion thruster produced by Busek, which is significant because it will be the first time that iodine will ever fly in a solid state as a propellant.
“A neat thing about the project in general is that it is a NASA mission, but Morehead State is the lead on it,” Malphrus said.
The project is funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, which sponsored the project with a $10.6 Million grant, which Malphrus believes to be the biggest competitive contract grant that Morehead State has ever received.
“To put it in a big perspective, we are building a suitcase-sized spacecraft," he said. "A NASA mission led by Morehead State goes to the moon, it gets launched on the maiden voyage of the most powerful rocket ever built in the history of the world."
Approximately 36 students are working or have worked on the Lunar IceCube, doing everything from elements-of-mission design to designing hardware to fabricating hardware.
“Students are intimately involved in every aspect of the mission,” Malphrus remarked. “Couldn’t do it without them.”
Morehead’s Space Science Center is currently working on three mission designs for future interplanetary CubeSats beyond Lunar IceCube.
“I think we will see a Pandora’s Box open,” Malphrus said of the future of less-is-more systems. “I think we will see a lot of interplanetary missions that involve small satellites after this round.”