Home » Morehead State University probe selected for lunar mission

Morehead State University probe selected for lunar mission

As part of $7.9 million partnership with NASA

MOREHEAD, Ky. (April 2, 2015) — NASA has selected Morehead State University as one of the 12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites.

SSC-art-4-15-webThe NASA contract is one of the biggest in MSU history at $7.9 million.

Selected companies will partner with NASA to develop the exploration capabilities necessary to enable commercial endeavors in space and human exploration to deep-space destinations such as the proving ground of space around the moon, known as cis-lunar space, and Mars.

“Commercial partners were selected for their technical ability to mature key technologies and their commitment to the potential applications both for government and private sector uses,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA headquarters. “This work ultimately will inform the strategy to move human presence further into the solar system.”

Two small satellite missions (CubeSats) were selected and will potentially fly as secondary payload missions on the first flight of the Space Launch System, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), scheduled to launch in 2017 or 2018. The smallsat missions will address NASA’s strategic knowledge gaps in order to reduce risk, increase effectiveness, and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration. EM-1 will provide a rare opportunity to boost these CubeSats to deep space and enable science, technology demonstration, exploration or commercial applications in that environment. The selected companies are Morehead State University and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company of Denver, Colorado.

Under this NASA NextSTEP program, Morehead State University and its partners, the Busek Company (Natick MA), NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC in Greenbelt MD), and the Catholic University of America (CUA), will develop and build a 6U CubeSat designed to prospect for water ice and other lunar volatiles from a low-perigee lunar orbit flying only 100 km (62 miles) above the lunar surface. The Lunar IceCube will be deployed during lunar trajectory by the SLS (which will be the most powerful rocket ever built) and use an innovative RF Ion engine to achieve lunar capture and the science orbit to allow the team to make systematic measurements of lunar water features.  The science goals are to investigate the distribution of water and other volatiles, as a function of time of day, latitude, and regolith composition/mineralogy.

IceCube will include a version of the Broadband InfraRed Compact High Resolution Exploration Spectrometer (BIRCHES) instrument, developed by NASA GSFC. BIRCHES is a compact version of the successful volatile-seeking spectrometer instrument on the New Horizons mission that is currently approaching Pluto.

Dr. Malphrus is serving as the project principal investigator (PI) with Dr. Pamela Clark (NASA GSFC and CUA) serving as the science principal investigator.

The team includes space systems engineers from Morehead State University, including Jeff Kruth, Kevin Z. Brown, Bob Twiggs, Michael Combs and Eric Thomas, and propulsion engineers from Busek including Kurt Hohman and Mike Tsay. The Science Team includes Dr. Roger McNeil and Dr. Eric Jerde  of MSU and Robert MacDowall, Noah Petro, Dennis Reuter,  Cliff Brambora, Deepak Patel, Stuart Banks and Avi Mandell from the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. The navigation team is led by Dr. Dave Folta (NASA GSFC), who has calculated a trajectory to the moon that utilizes an innovative low energy manifold trajectory.

One of the enabling technologies that make missions like this possible is the use of a cutting edge ion electric propulsion system. The Lunar IceCube mission will use an ion propulsion system based on Busek’s 3cm RF ion thruster known as BIT-3. It utilizes a solid iodine propellant and an inductively-coupled plasma system that produces significant thrust even with the low power available to CubeSats.

“Propulsion systems like this capable of producing adequate delta v and requiring only small volumes (for the propulsion system and propellant) and low power available to smallsat platforms will no doubt open a new door to solar system exploration,” said Dr. Malphrus. “The EM-1 CubeSat missions will usher in a new era of space exploration that is supported by innovative small satellite technologies.”

“This type of public-private partnership helps NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space,” said Jason Crusan, director of the Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AESD) of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

AESD manages NextSTEP and is committed to pioneering new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.