Adapter structure with 10 CubeSats installed on top of Artemis moon rocket

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The Orion Stage Adapter with the Artemis 1 mission’s rideshare payloads installed. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Workers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center have lifted the Orion Stage Adapter on top of the Space Launch System moon rocket, adding the structure housing 10 CubeSat rideshare payloads heading into deep space on the Artemis 1 mission. But three of the CubeSat missions missed their opportunity to fly on the first SLS mission.

Teams inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy raised the Orion Stage Adapter on top of the Space Launch System rocket Friday evening, according to Madison Tuttle, a NASA spokesperson.

The mounting of the circular adapter structure is one of the final steps in stacking the SLS rocket inside High Bay 3 of the iconic assembly building. The Orion spacecraft, NASA’s human-rated moon ship, will be added to the rocket in the coming days to complete the build-up of the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) launch vehicle for an unpiloted test flight to lunar orbit and back to Earth.

NASA has not announced a target launch date for the mission, known as Artemis 1, but it is expected to fly some time in early 2022. The test flight will pave the way for the next SLS/Orion mission, Artemis 2, to carry four astronauts to lunar orbit as soon as 2023.

The Artemis program’s objective is to land astronauts on the surface of the moon some time later in the 2020s.

Last month, engineers finished testing of the Space Launch System with a mock-up of the Orion spacecraft. The tests included a checkout of the umbilical release and retract mechanisms on the rocket’s mobile launch tower, and integrated modal testing, which measured the vehicle’s resonant frequencies in response to external forces.

The modal testing gathered data on the rocket’s response to vibrations and shaking. The information will help the rocket’s guidance system can properly steer and command the vehicle in flight.

With the modal test complete, ground crews with NASA and its contractor Jacobs removed mass simulators for the Orion spacecraft and the Orion Stage Adapter, setting the stage for stacking of flight hardware.

The Orion Stage Adapter carries deployer mechanisms for the Artemis 1 mission’s 10 rideshare payloads. The CubeSats, each about the size of a small briefcase, weigh less than 30 pounds (14 kilograms).

Engineers work with the Lunar IceCube spacecraft in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

NASA selected 13 CubeSat missions to launch on the first SLS flight in 2016 and 2017. At that time, NASA said it expected the first SLS test flight to launch in late 2018.

Engineers affixed CubeSat deployers inside the Orion Stage Adapter for the rideshare payloads, which will release from the rocket after the SLS upper stage releases the Orion spacecraft on the way to the moon.

But three of the smallsat missions faced problems that caused them to miss their chance to fly on Artemis 1. Officials with two of the missions cited the coronavirus pandemic as a contributor to the delays.

One of the missions that won’t launch with Artemis 1 is Lunar Flashlight, a small spacecraft developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission is designed to orbit the moon and shine infrared lasers into permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. An instrument on Lunar Flashlight will measure the light reflected off the lunar surface, revealing the composition and quantity of water ice and other molecules hidden on dark crater floors.

Ian O’Neill, a JPL spokesperson, said NASA is exploring several near-term commercial launch opportunities for Lunar Flashlight after determining it won’t be ready in time for launch on Artemis 1.

“Due to significant issues during testing of the originally procured Lunar Flashlight propulsion system, the mission switched to development of an alternative,” O’Neill said in a written statement. “This change occurred late in the project and delayed mission readiness. The combined commercial, academic, and NASA team working on the new propulsion system were unable to continue to make progress during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic while work on the launch vehicle continued.’

O’Neill said the Lunar Flashlight team has completed development of a “mission-ready” non-toxic propulsion system, and engineers continue integrating and testing the spacecraft for a future launch opportunity.

The Biosentinel spacecraft was the last of 10 CubeSats installed into the Orion Stage Adapter. Credit: NASA

The Cislunar Explorers mission, consisting of a pair of CubeSats, will also miss its ride on Artemis 1.

The two nanosatellites were developed at Cornell University to orbit the moon and test a water-based propulsion system and optical navigation systems.

“Despite the tremendous efforts of the students and the team, the Cislunar Explorers mission was not able to deliver our spacecraft in time for Artemis 1,” wrote Curran Muhlberger, the faculty advisor for the mission.

In a response to questions from Spaceflight Now, Muhlberger said the coronavirus pandemic was a “major factor” in Cislunar Explorers not being ready in time for Artemis 1.

“Beyond the direct effect of losing access to our lab on campus for several months, the work stoppage came at a critical time for our integration-and-test efforts,” he wrote. “By the time work resumed, key team members had graduated, and while our new recruits were very capable, onboarding and team-building still take time.

“Turnover and knowledge transfer are always a challenge for student-led projects, and the pandemic only exacerbated that,” he wrote.

The team also ran into “bad luck” with several components of the mission, according to Muhlberger. Some issues cropped up during integration of the CubeSats, requiring “extensive disassembly to diagnose and repair.’

“While we were ultimately able to assemble and fit-check our spacecraft, doing so by the deadline required taking shortcuts with our verification procedures,” he wrote. “In the end, we were not confident enough in the spacecraft’s reliability in that state to be comfortable making a delivery.”

Muhlberger said the team at Cornell will take some time to regroup before seeking another launch opportunity.

The third mission that was not ready in time for Artemis 1’s launch is CU-E3 from the University of Colorado, Boulder. That CubeSat was intended to launch on Artemis 1 and head into deep space, reaching a distance more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Earth to test a miniature planar antenna for deep space communications.

Scott Palo, the principal investigator for the CU-E3 mission, did not respond to questions on the delay or future plans.

This illustration shows the location of the Orion Stage Adapter on the Space Launch System rocket, just below the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The 10 rideshare missions delivered to Kennedy Space Center in time for Artemis 1 include BioSentinel, a project led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to investigate the affects of deep space radiation on living organisms.

BioSentinel was the last of the 10 CubeSats to be installed into the Orion Stage Adapter before its transfer to the VAB for stacking on the Space Launch System. The CubeSat carries dry yeast cells on microfluidic cards, which allow the microorganisms to be rehydrated after BioSentinel reaches space. Scientists will study the response off the yeast to the radiation environment in deep space over a six-month mission.

The living yeast cells were kept refrigerated until loading in order to preserve its biological contents as long as possible for the mission, according to NASA. BioSentinel was mounted on its deployer inside the Orion Stage Adapter last month, while the other nine CubeSats on the Artemis 1 mission were installed in July.

The other nine rideshare payloads launching with Artemis 1 are:

• Lunar IceCube: This mission, led by Morehead State University in Kentucky, will orbit the moon with an infrared spectrometer to investigate the presence off water and organic molecules on lunar surface and in the lunar exosphere.

• NEA Scout: The NEA Scout mission will deploy a solar sail to guide itself to a flyby with a small asteroid. The small spacecraft was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Marshall Space Flight Center.

• LunaH-Map: The Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, developed at Arizona State University, will map the hydrogen content of the entire South Pole of the moon, including within permanently shadowed regions at high resolution, according to NASA.

• CuSP: The CubeSat to study Solar Particles, or CuSP, will orbit the sun in interplanetary space. CuSP will observe particles and magnetic fields streaming away from the sun before they reach Earth, where they can trigger geomagnetic storms and other space weather events.

• LunIR: Developed by Lockheed Martin, the Lunar Infrared Imaging mission will perform a flyby of the moon to collect thermal imagery of the lunar surface. The mission will also demonstrate CubeSat technologies in deep space.

• Team Miles: This privately-developed CubeSat will test a miniature plasma propulsion system in deep space. The Team Miles mission is a partnership between Miles Space and Fluid & Reason LLC, two Florida-based companies.

• EQUULEUS: The EQUilibriUm Lunar-Earth point 6U Spacecraft will travel to the Earth-moon L2 Lagrange point beyond the far side of the moon. Developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the University of Tokyo, the mission will image Earth’s plasmasphere, observe of impacts on the lunar far side, and demonstrate of low-energy trajectory control maneuvers near the moon.

• OMOTENASHI: The Outstanding MOon exploration Technologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor mission, also developed by JAXA and the University of Tokyo, will attempt a “semi-hard” landing on the moon’s surface using a solid rocket motor.

• ArgoMoon: This mission will use a small satellite to perform proximity maneuvers around the SLS upper stage after deployment from the Orion Stage Adapter. ArgoMoon, provided by the Italian Space Agency in partnership with the Italian company Argotec, will provide high-resolution images of the upper stage for historical documentation.

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