A team of students at Cornell University is creating a CubeSat, a tiny satellite no bigger than a breadbox, that it hopes to fly in orbit around the moon as part of a NASA-sponsored competition, according to moon Daily. The innovative part of the Cornell Cubesat is that it will carry water as propellant. Water, which covers most of the Earth’s surface, is one of the more common substances in space.

The moon is filled with deposits of water ice in permanently shadowed craters. Individual asteroids and comets contain water as well. The idea is that eventually spacecraft will top off from water supplies found in celestial bodies and thus can continue, in theory, indefinitely.

The team, calling itself Cislunar Explorers, have developed a system in which the water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis.

Then the two gasses combust in short bursts, thus propelling the spacecraft. In effect, the CubeSat will contain its own onboard rocket propellant factory.

Cislunar Explorers is a participant in NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge that is designed to create CubeSats capable of operating in deep space. CubeSats are tiny spacecraft that are made from off the shelf materials and contain miniature instruments.

The idea is that CubeSats can be launched into space singly or in swarms to conduct science.

The challenge has $5.5 million in prize money, doled out for the achievement of certain milestones. Cislunar Explorers have already won two of the milestones, winning $20,000 and then $30,000 for demonstrating individual capabilities on the ground. The goal is to be one of the three student-created CubeSats to be included in the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System, scheduled for 2018.

Besides the innovative water propellant system, the Cislunar Explorers CubeSat will test an optical navigation system. Once in a high lunar orbit, the CubeSat will take images of the Earth, the moon, and the sun.

Cubesats have the potential for democratizing space exploration in the sense that they can be built by small teams of students such as the one at Cornell for next to nothing and then included in a space launch as a secondary payload.


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