Every year is a big year for NASA, but 2018 will be one of the biggest ever. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) will take its first flight past low-earth orbit in a mission designated ‘Exploration Mission-1’ (EM-1). Right now, it’s projected for a September 30th, 2018 launch.

The first flight for SLS is already a big deal. But, NASA isn’t stopping there. 13 CubeSats will be aboard the first flight.

“The SLS is providing an incredible opportunity to conduct science missions and test key technologies beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This rocket has the unprecedented power to send Orion to deep space plus room to carry 13 small satellites – payloads that will advance our knowledge about deep space with minimal cost.”

The CubeSats joining SLS for the historic mission

All total, 13 CubeSats will fly with SLS to the moon. We know about seven of them. Three of them are being reserved. Three more will be chosen through NASA’s CubeQuest Challenge.

CubeSat deployment

Here are the seven we know about.

SkyFire – Designed by Lockheed Martin, SkyFire is tasked with taking images of the lunar surface. One objective that all the CubeSats will work towards is expanding our knowledge of all things space. In SkyFire’s case, it will continue to build on what we know about remote sensing, site selection and thermal environments. It’s all about gathering data and reducing risks. SkyFire and the other CubeSats will do just that in a deep-space environment.

Lunar IceCube – This CubeSat is a joint effort by Morehead State University (they are leading the mission), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Busek Company. Goddard scientist Avi Mandell explains why Lunar IceCube and all the other CubeSats are so important on this mission.

“Lunar IceCube is a key pathfinder experiment for future small-scale planetary missions.” Mandell added, “I believe the future looks bright for science on CubeSats, due to their fantastic versatility. Once we understand how to design these platforms, the possibilities are endless as to what we can do with them.”

IceCube’s will orbit the Moon for six months and study lunar volatiles and water. But, getting into Moon orbit is a bit trickier than NASA’s SLS dropping it off. That’s where Goddard and Busek Company come in. Busek designed a low-thrust electric propulsion system called, the RF Ion BIT-3 thruster. Goddard is handling trajectory.

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) – One day, NASA hopes to retrieve an asteroid and bring it back to the Moon. NEA Scout will give NASA more info about asteroids, and more importantly, their immediate environments. That information will come in handy as NASA prepares other close-encounter asteroid missions.

NEA Scout might be small, but it packs a big sail. In fact, it will be the largest NASA has ever deployed in space. The sail is 86 square meters big. Here’s a time-lapse of the team folding up a sail about half the size ahead of a deployment test.

It’ll take two years for NEA Scout to reach its target asteroid, which currently is 1991VG.

BioSentinel – This CubeSat will use yeast to study the effects deep space radiation has on living organisms. NASA’s first SLS flight will be full of a lot of firsts. For BioSentinel, it will be the first study of a biological response to deep space radiation in over 40 years.

Lunar Flashlight – It will be on the lookout for ice deposits and map the lunar south pole for locations where resources may be extracted. If we ever do decide to build a lunar base, knowing where water and other resources are located will be vital to any kind of sustainability. Lunar Flashlight will also become the first mission to use lasers to look for water ice.

lunar flashlight cubesat

CuSP – CuSP will keep tabs on the sun as it orbits around it in interplanetary space. It will watch for particles and magnetic fields from the sun as they make their way towards Earth.

Eric Christian, lead Goddard scientist for CuSP, highlights the current problem. “Right now, it’s like we’re trying to understand weather for the entire Pacific Ocean with just a handful of weather stations.” Christian adds, “We need to collect data from more locations.”

While CubeSats lack the room to carry a bunch of instruments, they make up for it in cost. Can CubeSats fill the gap? That’s what NASA wants to see.

LunaH-Map – The moon will be a popular target for many of these CubeSats and LunaH-Map is no different. It will be tasked with creating the most detailed map of the moon’s water deposits to date.


2018 will be a milestone year for NASA. It will be a return to deep space aboard a new rocket and spacecraft designed for manned missions. We’ll also get a great look at how CubeSats perform outside of low-earth orbit.


Subscribe now to our newsletter