Setting Our Sights on the Moon with Shoebox-Sized Satellites

As NASA prepares to return to the Moon for the first time in 50 years with the Artemis program, all eyes are cast toward Earth’s ever-present neighbor.

Before astronauts set foot on the Moon to establish a permanent outpost, scientists must understand as much about it as possible. Small satellites like LunIR are the most cost-effective way to learn more about the Moon – and what challenges it could pose for human habitation.

Why Map the Moon?

LunIR’s mission is to observe the lunar surface and characterize things like material composition, thermal signatures and future potential landing sites. What that translates to at its core? Looking for water on the moon!

These observations will add to humanity’s knowledge about the Moon’s composition, structure and interaction between solar particles and lunar dirt. These efforts are all in the name of reducing risk and shaping future human lunar missions.

LunIR will accomplish its mission by completing a flyby of the Moon. The spacecraft will continue then collecting data to address NASA’s knowledge gaps related to transit and long-duration exploration to Mars and beyond. It will conduct technology demonstrations and maneuvers aimed at answering questions about the feasibility of human deep space travel.

Bite-Sized Technology

One of the beautiful things about LunIR – and other, similar small satellites – is its ability to pack a ton of technology into a small package. The shoebox-sized lunar scout, built and integrated by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. of Irvine, California (“Tyvak”) hosts a first-of-a-kind infrared sensor and novel cryocooler, both developed by Lockheed Martin.

Built at Lockheed Martin’s Optical Payload Center of Excellence in Sunnyvale, California, LunIR’s infrared sensor is unique because it can map the moon in both day and night. It can detect and image in the mid-wave IR spectrum at a much higher temperature than similar sensors. This particular light spectrum enables the measurement of both reflected sunlight and thermal emission.

The spacecraft can image at these higher temperatures without overheating thanks to a highly compact and innovative micro-cryocooler. This same technology could be applied to future missions to enable a wide range of detection on the IR spectrum for efficient cost.

Both components are extremely lightweight and designed to be compatible with Tyvak’s 6U satellite bus. The Lockheed Martin team also applied additive manufacturing techniques to further reduce overall mass of the spacecraft’s instruments – saving time and cost for the mission. 


The Moon’s New Neighbors

Delivered to NASA June 10, 2021, LunIR is among 13 small satellites that will hitch a ride along with the launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I mission and its massive Space Launch System rocket later this year. The public-private partnership for this particular spacecraft represents NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP).

This group of tiny spacecraft – including LunIR – will serve as micro technology or science demonstrations. Their compact size makes them a perfect fit to catch a ride on an existing rocket launch and experiment with new technologies that can be scaled later.  

In general, small satellites like LunIR, also known as Cubesats, aren’t just being used for lunar exploration, but for many kinds of space activities because of their unique ability to pioneer new technologies at an affordable price.

Reflective of this broader trend, Tyvak will lead the launch integration of all 13 small satellites on the Artemis mission, including LunIR. Complementing Lockheed Martin’s expertise on the instrument side, Tyvak is responsible for LunIR’s spacecraft design, development, build, integration and mission assurance. Tyvak will also manage the spacecraft’s mission operations once in orbit.

LunIR is the latest thread in Lockheed Martin’s partnership with NASA on lunar exploration, which stretches back more than 50 years to the Apollo missions. The company’s more recent projects include NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the company’s selection for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and an exciting new early development effort for lunar mobility vehicles with General Motors.

As more companies partner together to send LunIR and other small but mighty explorers out into our universe, the potential for big discoveries is endless.