CubeQuest GT-4 Presentation

As part of Ground Tournament 4, we and the other teams gave presentations about our projects. Although the presentations were recorded, we were not notified of where (or even that) they had been posted. However, we recently came across the presentations video when looking up CubeQuest information.

The video includes our GT4 presentation, as well as the presentations of the other GT-4 competitors, along with remarks by CubeQuest Challenge Administrator Jim Cockrell.

Note that the screen capture recording of the slides seems to be slightly out of sync with the video recording of the speakers.

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Fall Semester Accomplishments: Optical Navigation

This fall semester saw improvements to multiple subsystems as we prepare to build the flight units in the spring. Our optical navigation system is one such area. We have published multiple papers about our research into this navigation method in the past. The most significant improvements this semester were in the area of image processing and recognition. In the past, our system has been capable of recognizing and distinguishing between the Sun, Earth, and Moon, but only when these bodies were visible as full circles.

As you can see in the image slideshow below, that is no longer the case. Our algorithm is now capable of recognizing partial and even crescent bodies, and can even detect and distinguish the Earth and Moon from each other when they overlap. Coupled with the already completed Kalman filters for estimation of attitude and position from this data, the optical navigation algorithm is now complete.

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Several tasks remain for the spring semester. First, we want to make improvements to the hardware interface with the Raspberry Pi cameras. We already havey implemented a camera multiplexer for the Raspberry Pi, and captured images of the Sun and Moon with these cameras in the field, but the rate of image capture and camera calibration can be improved.

Second, we need to begin testing the combined hardware and software. The Kalman filters have been tested with representative data, and the image processing has been tested with images taken in the field, but the Kalman filters need to be tested using data computed by processing actual images of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. The main obstacle to doing this is finding a stream of images of the Sun, Earth, and Moon from the same spacecraft along a cislunar trajectory. Individual images of any of these bodies are readily available, but we need:

  • Images of the Sun, Earth, and Moon from roughly the same location.
  • Knowledge of the angular separation between the camera facing when each image was taken.
  • Many times at different locations in cislunar space.

One way to obtain such images is to simulate them. Mission planning software such as STK or GMAT, or planetarium software such as Stellarium, is capable of doing this. Last year, we published a short video showing the spacecraft point of view for part of a simulated Cislunar Explorers trajectory using STK. Simulated images of the Sun, Earth, and Moon could be created in a similar way. This could provide us with arbitrarily many images of the three bodies, and can be easily repeated for different trajectories.

We will do this next semester, but it only tests the software, because the images are simulated and not captured with the spacecraft cameras.

We can also repeat field tests of the Sun and Moon to test our improved image capture rate and camera calibration, but there is an obvious obstacle to capturing images of the Earth from its surface, so it is not possible for us to collect fully representative data from here on Earth. So, this mainly tests the hardware.

In order to test the hardware and software together, we need to create a representative environment for the spacecraft to spin in and take images of a fake Sun, Earth, and Moon. Fortunately,  we already have a spinning air bearing test rig for our slosh damping measurements. Our existing CubeSat EDU structure can rest on it and spin exactly as the spacecraft will in orbit. We will create a sort of darkroom/planetarium around the model, for the cameras to capture images of and feed to the navigation algorithm. Similar techniques have been used by other researchers to test star trackers in the past, with projected starfields on the walls of a darkroom.

We look forward to confronting this and other challenges in the spring semester, as we move towards final testing and integration of flight hardware.

GT4: First place, selected to fly on EM-1!

This morning, the NASA Centennial Challenges program announced the results of the fourth and final Ground Tournament in the CubeQuest.

The Cislunar Explorers team is proud to say that we won first place, earning a $20,000 prize! More importantly, we are officially one of three CubeQuest selections to fly as a secondary payload on EM-1 in 2019. This will allow us to compete in the Lunar Derby and become among the first CubeSats to depart Earth orbit. We are grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate our new technologies in orbit. Success will prove the viability of water electrolysis propulsion and interplanetary optical navigation, both of which will contribute to expanding the capabilities of the CubeSat platform.

Congratulations also to our neighbors on EM-1, CU-E3 and Team Miles, both of whom will demonstrate their own incredible technologies in the Deep Space Derby. We are looking forward to completing our spacecraft and flying into space alongside them, the other secondary payloads, and the Orion space capsule.

Above all, we are excited to continue with our multi-year journey from whiteboard scribbles, to a completed design, to a manifested payload… and hopefully, to the moon!

 

New Ground Station! And other updates.

There has been exciting progress made since our last update (and how time flies!). We have completed a spacecraft flatsat earlier this year, demonstrating all spacecraft functionality in the clean room here on campus. We have also built a new ground station to communicate with our spacecraft. Additionally, we have made our submission for the fourth and final Ground Tournament that will determine our eligibility for the EM-1 launch! Finally, we have completed our Phase II safety review and are working on closing out action items given to us by the safety review panel.

New Ground Station

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Cislunar Explorers new ground station. Cornell’s clock tower can be seen in the lower right.

We have completed our upgraded ground station, which is on the top of Rhodes Hall, one of the highest points on campus. With this ground station, we can maintain a comfortable link margin with our spacecraft even at its farthest distance–over 1.2 million kilometers from Earth! The new ground station will support several flight projects in between now and the EM-1 launch that will hopefully fly Cislunar Explorers. This will give us ample opportunity to practice tracking and communicating with spacecraft in advance of our mission. Our old ground station remains on top of Barton Hall for use as a backup; its gain is sufficient to maintain communications with the spacecraft at the lunar distance where most of the mission will take place.

Ground Tournament 4

We have submitted our documentation for Ground Tournament 4, which is the final phase of the ground segment of the CubeQuest challenge. As one of five teams left in the competition, we are competing for three open launch spots on EM-1. The results will be announced the week of June 8th at NASA AMES.

Phase II Safety Review

We have also submitted our data package and completed our Phase II Safety Review presentation. While the Ground Tournaments determine which missions are chosen for launch opportunities, eligible teams must also pass a series of safety reviews from Phase 0 through Phase III, in order to be cleared to actually fly. We completed Phase 0 in 2015 and Phase I in 2016, closing all action items from both. The Phase II review has been conducted, and we are expecting to close related action items early this summer. At that point, if we are selected from GT4, we will only need to complete the final, Phase III review to launch!

Ground Tournament 3 Prize!

NASA’s Centennial Challenges program recently announced the results of the third Ground Tournament in the CubeQuest. The Cislunar Explorers team is proud to say that we won second place, earning a $30,000 prize! This brings us closer to our goal of being selected for launch on the EM-1 mission as a secondary payload, which will allow us to compete in the Lunar Derby and become among the first CubeSats to depart Earth orbit. It is a great followup to our prize-winning finish in the first Ground Tournament last year. The next and final Ground Tournament will be in February 2017. We hope to maintain our strong position to win another prize as well as an EM-1 launch opportunity!

We have been fortunate to earn a total of $80,000 so far due to our strong performance in both Ground Tournaments. Now, our fabrication and testing process is ramping up as we prepare to produce complete, space-ready CubeSats for Ground Tournament 4. We are off to a running start in  the build process, with our avionics, electrical power system, and engineering-unit spacecraft bus already completed. Funds raised in the crowd-funding effort on Kickstarter will defray these costs and reduce mission risk: we’ll be able to afford high-efficiency solar cells, 3D printed titanium combustion chambers, and more!

 

With your help, we can make the road to space an easier path for everyone!

NSS/Cislunar Explorers Press Release

(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.

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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.”

Kickstarter Launched!

We are happy to announce that our crowd-funding effort on Kickstarter has gone live! We have been fortunate to earn a total of $50,000 so far due to our strong performance in both Ground Tournaments. Now, our fabrication and testing process is ramping up as we prepare to produce complete, space-ready CubeSats for Ground Tournament 4. We are off to a running start in  the build process, with our avionics, electrical power system, and engineering-unit spacecraft bus already completed. Funds raised in the crowd-funding effort will defray these costs and reduce mission risk: we’ll be able to afford high-efficiency solar cells, 3D printed titanium combustion chambers, and more!

Our shiny new spacecraft bus (latest version just arrived 9/15)!

Our shiny new spacecraft bus (latest version just arrived 9/15)!