August 9, 2016 – Lockheed Martin has signed a contract with NASA to deploy SkyFire, a 6U CubeSat planned to launch to the moon in 2018. Technologies aboard SkyFire’s small CubeSat platform will be demonstrated that address NASA’s Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) and enable future missions.
SkyFire will be one of thirteen CubeSats to fly on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), the first integrated launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and an uncrewed Orion spacecraft. SkyFire will be deployed from the EM-1 upper stage and will perform a lunar flyby, taking images of the lunar surface and its environment, providing surface characterization, remote sensing, and site selection observations. A groundbreaking infrared camera will take high quality images with a lighter, simpler unit. This reduction in mass means lower payload cost and easier maneuverability in space.
“SkyFire’s lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration,” said John Ringelberg, Lockheed Martin’s SkyFire project manager. “Partnering with NASA for another element of the Orion and Space Launch System EM-1 flight is very exciting.”
The data collected on thermal environments will add to the body of knowledge on the composition, structure, interaction with the space environment, and interaction with solar particles and the lunar regolith.
“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” said James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”
The moon is only the proving ground for this new technology. The infrared system on SkyFire could eventually be used for cost-effective studies of a planet’s resources before humans arrive. This includes tasks like analyzing soil conditions, determining ideal landing sites and discovering a planet’s most livable areas.
“For a small CubeSat, SkyFire has a chance to make a big impact on future planetary space missions,” Russell explained. “With less mass and better instruments, we can get closer, explore deeper and learn more about the far reaches of our solar system.”
SkyFire is part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program and is a public-private partnership between Lockheed Martin and NASA. Lockheed Martin will build the satellite with internal investments, and the newly-signed contract will grant Lockheed Martin access to send the satellite to the moon aboard the EM-1 launch. NASA will in turn receive data from the mission.
The Lockheed Martin development team primarily consists of early-career engineers in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, is also the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.
During EM-1, SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the moon to demonstrate the integrated system performance of Orion and the SLS rocket prior to the first crewed flight. The first configuration of SLS that will fly on EM-1 is referred to as Block I and will have a minimum 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capability and be powered by twin boosters and four RS-25 engines.
The CubeSats will be deployed following Orion separation from the upper stage and once Orion is a safe distance away. Each payload will be ejected with a spring mechanism from dispensers on the Orion stage adapter.