We miss the space shuttles but we’re excited about the next chapter in NASA’s exploration of space. In 2011 NASA announced the Space Launch System (SLS), a powerful rocket that would replace the retired space shuttles. The first version of the SLS, called Block 1, will launch in 2018 and be the biggest rocket NASA have created. With 15% more thrust than the Saturn V, the first SLS will be capable of carrying crew and large amounts of cargo into space and play a key role in space exploration moving forward.
As the years go on, SLS will be upgraded to carry more cargo and travel further in space. From its inception until the 2018 launch, NASA will have spent around $7 billion on the project. The upgrades mean that the cost will expand to around $35 billion by 2025. NASA sees the cost as worth it since the SLS will be the primary space exploration vehicle for future space missions.
NASA have announced the experiments that will be travelling as cargo on the 2018 launch and these include several CubeSats: tiny, cuboid satellites usually weighing less than 1 kg. The first SLS will carry over a dozen experimental CubeSats that will perform scientific experiments.
Skyfire is a tiny satellite that will travel on the SLS. It will perform a flyby of the moon and study the lunar surface in more detail than ever before, filling gaps in our knowledge about the lunar surface. The images and measurements collected during the flyby will be useful for future lunar missions involving astronauts or potential moonbases. We also don’t have a great idea about parts of the moon that we ever really see. Some places are permanently in shadow. A CubeSat called LunaH-Map will map any hydrogen detected inside craters and other shadowed areas near the south pole.
Other CubeSats on the SLS that will make their way to the moon include Lunar IceCube and Lunar Flashlight. We know there is water ice on the moon but we have no idea how much there is or the best place to find it. Both satellites can detect water ice and will search for resources that could be useful for future missions. These are low-orbit missions and Lunar IceCube will orbit just 63 miles above the lunar surface.
It’s important that we learn more about nearby objects like the moon and asteroids because future missions may use them as stepping-stones to get further into space. For that reason there’s also a CubeSat called the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) that will study a nearby asteroid called 1991 VG. Scientists will use the satellite to learn about the asteroid’s surface and spin in the hopes that future spacecraft can use it for landing.
Another important problem in space is radiation. Here on Earth, our atmosphere protects us from most space radiation. But on spacecraft, astronauts face potentially dangerous levels of radiation. If we want to send humans on the distant voyage to Mars, we need to know they can survive the radiation for that long. Biosentinal is a CubeSat on the SLS that will carry living yeast in space for 18 months. Sensors will measure radiation on the satellite and how the yeast are affected.
Much of the radiation that pummels out astronauts comes from the Sun. It’s easy to forget that space is a busy place with invisible particles and magnetic fields hitting us all the time. CUSP (CUbesat to Study Solar Particles) will be used to better understand our local space “weather” by monitoring the solar winds that reach our planet.
Block 1 is a very early mission in the life of the SLS but already it’s going to be a very useful mission of great scientific value. If successful it’ll get bigger and bigger, and perhaps we can really start to explore our solar system further than before.
Images © NASA