NSS has teamed with Cornell University on the Cislunar Explorers Team, competing in the NASA CubeQuest Challenge. The CubeQuest Challenge is an effort to stimulate the development of innovative propulsion, navigation, and communication solutions that will enable the use of cubesats for lunar and deep space exploration and development. The Challenge is composed of four Ground Tournaments (GT1-4), a Deep Space Derby, and a Lunar Derby. Cash prizes are awarded to the winners of these activities. For more information see the NASA web page on the CubeQuest Challenge.
So far, over a dozen teams have competed in various combinations in Ground Tournaments 1, 2, and 3. In each of these, teams that placed in the top 5 were awarded the cash prizes. The Cislunar Explorers Team is off to a great start by taking third place in GT-1, first place in GT-2, and second place in GT-3. We are the only team that has placed in the top 3 spots in all three of the ground tournaments. This is important because the Ground Tournaments are being used to determine which of the teams wins one of three free launch slots on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Exploration Mission (EM-1), currently scheduled for the Fall of 2018. The key to who gets a free launch slot is the last Ground Tournament, GT-4, currently due in February 2017. The teams that place in the top 3 in that ground tournament will get a free ride on the SLS.
The open literature routinely talks about using liquid water as a propellant. The water would be electrolyzed and the resulting hydrogen would be used as fuel and the oxygen as oxidizer. This concept is all the more appealing, since it’s beginning to look like water (the greenest of all fuels) is quite common in our solar system. Still, to date, electrolyzed liquid water has never been used as a propellant in space. The Cislunar Explorers Team is developing a spacecraft that will be the first to do just that.
The goal has its challenges. First, it’s really cold in space, and the water has to be in liquid form for electrolysis to work. The Team has devised an elegant solution to this challenge by using the heat generated by the onboard electronics to keep the water liquid (while disposing of unwanted heat from the electronics). The water has the added benefit of being a great radiation shield for the electronics.
Then the gas must be separated from the liquid water—not a problem on Earth, but this is an issue in the weightless environment of space. This separation is accomplished in space by rotating the spacecraft and using the resulting inertial forces to move the liquid away from the gas. Rotating the spacecraft also allows the sloshing liquid water to dampen out any wobbles in the spacecraft rotation, keeping it rotating in an orderly way about its primary axis (also the thrust axis).
The Cislunar Explorers are actually two separate spacecraft that will be split after deployment from the SLS and given their initial rotation in the process of splitting.
The Cislunar Explorers Team also intends to demonstrate a new, optical navigation capability that will use the positions of the Earth, the Moon, the Sun and their known positions to determine the position of the spacecraft.
The purpose of all this effort is to demonstrate the technologies that will be used to place Cislunar Explorers spacecraft in orbit around the Moon, helping enable the exploration and development of space by cubesats in the process. With this in mind, the Cislunar Explorers Team will make all of our spacecraft designs, software, techniques, and lessons-learned available on the web, allowing anybody anywhere to copy and use the information for free. See www.cislunarexplorers.wordpress.com for more detailed information about the project.
Want to Help?
The Cislunar Explorers project presents some unique opportunities for member involvement. If you want to contribute to a historic project that will demonstrate technologies critical to the development of space, check out the tasks described below.
- The Team needs help in refining and checking spacecraft trajectories and delta-V requirements given orbital elements. Anybody who has experience with calculating spacecraft trajectories is invited to help with this task.
- The Team plans to use a facility at Cornell University as mission control to communicate with the spacecraft at 437.5 MHz. This will allow for communication coverage for about 8 hours per day. However, it is desirable to receive data from the spacecraft continuously, requiring receiving stations in other parts of the world. If you have connections that could help with this, you are invited to consider helping the Team.
Mike Snyder, NSS Board member and Projects Committee Chair, is volunteering time to help the Team with system-level testing and acting as liaison with NSS. If you are interested in helping with the above tasks, please contact him at
Want to Donate?
We still need money for completing spacecraft development and testing, developing mission software, and reducing project risk. You can donate online. Enter “For the Cislunar Explorers Project” in the “Other information or questions” field. You don’t have to be an NSS member to donate.
If our team wins an in-space prize ($1.5 million shared award for the teams attaining lunar orbit), NSS will get a share of the prize equal to the donations that come through NSS. In effect, your donation will get twice the bang for the buck!