Cornell University’s Cislunar Explorers have earned a chance to make history — and more than one million dollars — with NASA.
The Cislunar Explorers developed a small satellite (smallsat) that was one of three winners in the semi-final round of NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge. The team’s prize-winning satellite will fly aboard the Space Launch System and into space in 2019.
Kyle Doyle, a doctoral student who helps lead the group, explained the NASA contest. “NASA has a rocket which is going to be launched in 2019. On this rocket, they have room for thirteen CubeSats [small satellites], and three of those spots are open to the general public via the CubeQuest challenge. The first leg of the CubeQuest challenge was the design competition. The top three designs, including ours, have been selected to fly on the rocket. The second leg of the CubeQuest challenge will happen in space, where NASA will award substantial sums of money if the CubeSats complete certain objectives, such as reaching lunar orbit,” Doyle said.
The team already has won $100,000 in prize money for the design competition, Doyle added. In space, if the team’s satellite achieves lunar orbit, it could win up to $1.5 million. “If we are successful, we would be among the first private spacecraft to orbit the moon,” he said.
The team is a part of Professor Mason Peck’s, mechanical and aerospace engineering, lab. Doyle explained how years of research in Prof. Peck’s lab launched the satellite’s success. “The core technology is a water electrolysis propulsion thruster. We have been developing this technology at Cornell since 2009,” he said. “The idea behind this is that we have a small spacecraft about the size of a bread box, and we have some water on-board this spacecraft. When we zap the water with electricity, this causes the water molecules to split into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which is a very combustible mixture that can be used as rocket fuel. I am excited about the possibility of refueling spacecraft using water. We have discovered that there is a lot of water and ice in solar system. You could really give spacecraft longer lifetimes by having them refuel in space with water.
The navigation systems aboard the group’s satellite are also unique, Doyle explained. “Most spacecraft navigate by radio triangulation. This is difficult for small spacecraft operating very far from Earth. With our new technology as an alternative, the spacecraft carries inexpensive cameras and uses them to take pictures of the Earth, the sun and the moon, then uses their relative locations to determine its own location,” he said.