(Washington, DC – September 26, 2016)
The National Space Society has teamed with Cornell University on the Cislunar Explorers CubeSat project. If this shoebox-size spacecraft successfully orbits the moon, it will be the first to demonstrate that water can propel a spacecraft. And this small step will be a giant leap toward democratizing access to space. That’s because the plans for every aspect of the spacecraft’s software and hardware will be available online. With an inexpensive and freely accessible design, this project will provide a means for virtually anyone to build an interplanetary spacecraft of their own.
“We now understand that water is abundant throughout the solar system, and in a few years water may become the single most versatile resource for a future of sustainable space exploration,” said Kyle Doyle, Cislunar Explorers Project Manager and Ph.D. student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. “It’s safe and inexpensive, and can be used to refuel a spacecraft like ours throughout its lifetime. So, we expect this propulsion technology to broaden public participation in deep-space exploration.”
The Cislunar Explorers design consists of a pair of water-powered CubeSats entered into the NASA CubeQuest Challenge. This Challenge offers a total of $5 million to teams “delivering flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the moon.” Teams are judged by increasingly rigorous standards at a series of four “Ground Tournaments” as to the viability and maturity of their design. Cislunar Explorers has finished in the top three at both completed Ground Tournaments, including first place at Ground Tournament 2. The top three teams at the end will ride on NASA’s Space Launch System in 2018. If selected, the Cislunar Explorers will join twelve other CubeSats as secondary payloads: a fleet of nanosatellites demonstrating novel technologies in deep space.
The mission consists of two spacecraft launched together. Each contains a propellant tank full of liquid water. After launch, the two spacecraft push apart from each other thanks to a spring-loaded mechanism, which also causes each to spin. Solar panels provide electricity to separate water into highly combustible hydrogen and oxygen gas, the same rocket propellant used in the Space Shuttle main engine. In this way, the Cislunar Explorers are able to achieve lunar orbit using nothing more than water.
The Cislunar Explorers team has created a crowd-funding page on Kickstarter. Funds raised will support the purchase of flight hardware including high-efficiency solar cells and 3D printed titanium combustion chambers, as well as additional testing campaigns to reduce mission risk. The final design will be open source, with software, schematics, and test results made publicly available.
“We at the NSS are partnering with Cornell on this project because of the broad impact on space exploration and public engagement that it promises.” said Dean Larson, the Cislunar Explorers lead at NSS. “Successful crowd funding will help the team achieve our goal of reducing the barriers to sustained space explorations, making the solar system accessible to everyone.”