NASA's Artemis I mission is the first step towards returning human beings to the Moon.

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The Artemis programme has most spaceflight fans on the edge of their seat: it marks a new era in crewed spaceflight and, if all goes to plan, will see the establishment of a permanent human presence on the lunar surface.

When Artemis I finally launches, it will have no human crew, but there are plenty of other interesting passengers going along for the ride.

One of Artemis I's payloads will be 10 shoebox-sized CubeSats.

We spoke to Andres Martinez, programme executive for NASA’s Small Spacecrafts, to find out more.

andres martinez
Credit: Andres Martinez

How many CubeSats are on board Artemis I?

There are 10 CubeSats installed alongside Artemis I. 7 of them are sponsored by NASA; 4 are under my responsibility.

We also have three international CubeSats aboard.

When you see the size of these CubeSats, and look into the incredible science that we’re going to be conducting, your first reaction is ‘no way!’, because they’re the size of a shoebox.

What sort of science will your 4 CubeSats be conducting?

The first is called Lunar IceCube and is led by Morehead State University in eastern Kentucky, with 100 university students participating.

Lunar IceCube will orbit the Moon for six months and has an incredible infrared spectrometer. It will document where water is on the Moon and its daily movement.

The second one, LunIR, is led by Lockheed Martin. It doesn’t have any propulsion, but will travel on a ballistic trajectory straight to the Moon.

Over the 72 minutes that it goes by the Moon it’s going to take some incredible high-resolution images with a very sophisticated infrared instrument.

CubeSats being installed inside the SLS’s Orion Stage Adapter in 2021. Credit: NASA
CubeSats being installed inside the SLS’s Orion Stage Adapter in 2021. Credit: NASA

The third is the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, led by Marshall Space Flight Center.

It will rendezvous with an asteroid, take images and send those back to us. It will use a 80m2 solar sail – the size of a bus – as its main propulsion system.

The target asteroid is about the size of a Volkswagen.

The fourth mission is BioSentinel, led by Ames, which will send live biology further into space than ever before, namely yeast.

We are going to put BioSentinel in a heliocentric orbit, trailing behind Earth.

As we expect solar events to take place, it will go through very harmful radiation and we’re going to document the effects on live organisms.

Do you have a favourite CubeSat?

I’m very fond of Lunar IceCube because I saw many kids grow up during the project.

A couple were a little cocky, but I could see fear in some of them – especially when I walked into the room in a suit with a NASA pin.

The first thing I would tell them was "I’m one of you. NASA is on your team."

What makes me super-happy is that a lot of these kids have now graduated and come to work here at NASA.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Authors

Shaoni Bhattacharya
Shaoni BhattacharyaScience journalist

Shaoni Bhattacharya is a science journalist and writer.

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