NASA to Launch First Lunar Rocket Since Apollo, Small Lunar Spacecraft To See If It Can Reach Earth’s Poles

Read NASA’s news release here.

In February, NASA plans to launch the first lunar rocket since the Apollo program.

The 21st-century equivalent, known as Space Launch System, will be fueled in December and place cubesats into orbit after its liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“With this capability, as we progress through the decades, we can go farther,” Michael Hopkins, deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “In addition to these cubesats, SLS could also be used for a subsequent lunar lander mission.”

The mission will be a follow-up to a 2018 flight by unmanned Orion that put small, commercial payloads into orbit. The cubesats will be used to test how close to Earth the Atlas V rocket can get.

“A lot of the design work that we did in the last flight and for that launching capsule is going to be applied, not only in terms of the design work, but also in terms of the assembly work of those cubesats,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a phone interview Friday.

The cubesats are intended to measure how the lunar gravity affects the satellites and observe how gas clouds radiate off the moon, he said.

In March 2018, NASA paid Orbital ATK and SpaceX to both deliver communications and scientific payloads into orbit.

The cubesats will join NASA’s existing series of smaller satellites in Earth orbit, Stallmer said.

“Those cubesats are all used to do things like put science payloads in orbit. But this is essentially taking all of those cubesats and then sending them all to the moon,” he said.

Building a series of such satellites and having them launch from the moon could have significant benefits in advancing science and engineering education and revolutionizing space exploration, Stallmer said.

Cubesats could also help get existing technology to the moon and deliver it back to Earth, he said.

A major limitation of rockets like SLS is how high up in Earth’s atmosphere they can get. For example, high-altitude, expendable rockets were all that enabled the Apollo program.

“With the mini-satellites, by taking those cubesats into orbit and putting them up higher up on the atmosphere, that makes the value of a human-rated, heavy-lift launch vehicle that much more valuable,” Stallmer said.

When additional funding becomes available, Stallmer said, the task force would need to evaluate how many cubesats and the specific technology types they use should be sent out from the moon.

Cubesats can be purchased now, and while Stallmer said it’s unlikely they’ll be the only tools sent from the moon, they could become one of them.

“It’s probably going to be a small piece,” he said. “But that’s up to the hardware task force.”

Leave a Comment