Cornell students hope to make the first CubeSat to orbit the moon

“A lot of the mass we send into orbit these days is in the form of rockets – the only way we get anything into space,” Peck said. “But what if we could use what’s already there? If we could do that, if we could refuel spacecraft while they’re already in space, that means that we could go farther, probably faster, probably accomplish a lot more, and we wouldn’t rely on Earth for supplies.”

Cornell says that if all goes according to plan, the Cislunar Explorers’ CubeSat will take off aboard the SLS rocket and, somewhere between the Earth and moon, be jettisoned from the payload bay.

The satellite is actually two “L”-shaped halves, and they will split apart and gradually separate miles from each other, both on a course for the moon’s atmosphere. The twin satellites will spin as they go, their spin creating angular momentum — think a spinning top — that will help keep them from tumbling off course.

With energy captured from the sun, water stored in tanks at the bottom of the “L” is electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen gases, which will combust in short bursts, thirty minutes to an hour apart, to provide propulsion. The spinning will also separate the liquid water from the combustible gases.

As the craft enters the moon’s gravitational pull, it will slow down and be swung into a distant Earth orbit, eventually reconnecting with the moon days later. It is during this second rendezvous that Peck and his team plan for the satellite to be traveling slowly enough to be sucked into lunar orbit, some 6,200 miles above the surface of the moon.

In addition to the water-based propulsion, the other core technology to be demonstrated by the team is optical navigation, said project manager Kyle Doyle, a doctoral student in aerospace engineering.

According to Doyle, cameras onboard the craft will constantly take pictures of the sun, Earth, and moon and compare their apparent sizes and separation with their ephemerides – where these bodies should be at the time the pictures were taken.

“Using fairly simple geometry, the spacecraft can say, ‘OK, I must be here, because these bodies look like this,’” Doyle said. “It’s very much like ancient explorers using the sun and moon to navigate. What’s old is new again.”

The competition is scheduled to end one year after the SLS launch.

“Even before the competition ends, I think we will already have been successful in another way – through bringing a number of students into this extraordinary experience,” Peck said. “Not many students get to launch their senior project, right?”