Artist's rendering of the Lunar IceCube spacecraft
|Mission type||Lunar orbiter|
|Launch mass||≈14 kg (31 lb)|
|Power||2 deployable solar arrays|
|Start of mission|
|Rocket||SLS Artemis 1|
|Periselene altitude||100 km (62 mi)|
Lunar IceCube is a planned NASA nanosatellite orbiter mission to prospect, locate, and estimate amount and composition of water ice deposits on the Moon for future exploitation by robots or humans. It will fly as a secondary payload mission on Artemis 1 (formerly known as Exploration Mission 1), the first flight of the Space Launch System, planned to launch in 2021.
The lunar mission was designed by Morehead State University and its partners, the Busek Company, NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, and The Catholic University of America (CUA). It was selected in April 2015 by NASA's NextSTEP program ('Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships') and awarded a contract worth up to $7.9 million for further development.
The Lunar IceCube spacecraft will have a 6U CubeSat format, and a mass of about ≈14 kg (31 lb). It is one of thirteen CubeSats planned to be carried on board the maiden flight of the SLS, Artemis 1, as secondary payloads in cis-lunar space, in 2021. It will be deployed during lunar trajectory and will use an innovative electric RF ion engine to achieve lunar capture and the science orbit to allow the team to make systematic measurements of lunar water features from an orbit about 100 km (62 mi) above the lunar surface. The Principal Investigator is Ben Malphrus, Director of the Space Science Center at Morehead State University.).
NASA's Lunar Prospector, Clementine, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiters and other missions, confirmed both water (H2O) and hydroxyl (—OH−) deposits at high latitudes on the lunar surface, indicating the presence of trace amounts of adsorbed or bound water are present, but their instruments weren't optimized for fully or systematically characterizing the elements in the infrared wavelength bands ideal for detecting water. These missions suggest that there might be enough ice water at polar regions to be used by future landed missions, but the distribution is difficult to reconcile with thermal maps.
Lunar prospecting missions are intended to pave the way toward incorporating use of space resources into mission architectures. NASA's planning for eventual human missions to Mars depends on tapping the local natural resources to make oxygen and propellant for launching the return ship back to Earth, and a lunar precursor mission is a convenient location to test such in situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology.
Lunar IceCube will include a version of the Broadband InfraRed Compact High Resolution Exploration Spectrometer (BIRCHES) instrument, developed by NASA's GSFC. BIRCHES is a compact version of the volatile-seeking spectrometer instrument onbord the New Horizons Pluto flyby mission.
The tiny CubeSat spacecraft will make use of a miniature electric RF ion engine system based on Busek's 3 centimeter RF ion thruster, also known as BIT-3. It utilizes a solid iodine propellant and an inductively-coupled plasma system that produces 1.1 mN thrust and 2800 sec specific impulse from approximately 50W total input power. It will also use this engine for capture into lunar orbit, and orbit adjustments. It is estimated the spacecraft will take about 3 months to reach the Moon.
The flight software is being developed in SPARK/Ada by the Vermont Technical College CubeSat Lab. SPARK/Ada has the lowest error rate of any computer language, important for the reliability and success of this complicated spacecraft. It is used in commercial and military aircraft, air traffic control and high speed trains. This is the second spacecraft using SPARK/Ada, the first being the Basic Low Earth Orbit CubeSat also by the Vermont Tech CubeSat Lab, the only fully successful university CubeSat out of 12 on the NASA ELaNa IV Air Force ORS-3 launch.