Small-but-mighty SkyFire nanosatelite cleared to ride with Orion into space
The Denver Post
Lockheed Martin has finalized a contract with NASA that will let a nanosatellite hitch a ride to deep space with Orion’s Exploration Mission-1 to take high-definition infrared photos of the moon. But the implications of the mission go beyond photos.
If the September 2018 mission is successful, the nanosatellite and its infrared camera could be used in future missions to help scientists learn more about the origins of the universe and help explorers reach new regions of space.
SkyFire, which will be built at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Jefferson County, is 14 inches long, principal investigator James Russell said. The infrared camera accounts for one-third of the small satellite’s volume, which is roughly the size of two loaves of bread.
“You could put it in your hands and carry it around,” Russell said.
But don’t be deceived by its small size.
SkyFire is one of 13 nanosatellites that will hitch a ride with Orion as it launches into space. SkyFire will break off, though, and take a solo adventure, bumping up as close as 600 miles to the moon, taking photos and sending them back to Earth. The entire mission will last a month. Lockheed Martin did not disclose the financial terms of the contract with NASA.
Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Jefferson County is the prime contractor for Orion. The company provided most of the spacecraft’s engineering and its heat shield structure. Orion’s uncrewed Experimental Flight Test-1 launched and returned to Earth in December 2014. NASA hopes to launch a crewed Orion mission in 2023.
SkyFire’s infrared camera and additional lens filters will allow scientists to collect data about the surface of the moon, such as temperature and its material makeup.
Although nanosatellites have been used close to Earth, this will be the second time a cubesat will go into deep space. The first will be Mars Cube One, which will launch with the Lockheed Martin-built InSight in May 2018.
“I think people would love to go back to the moon or go back to Mars and collect samples,” Russell said. “We’re doing the next-best thing.”
If SkyFire is a success, it could spark more missions using nanosatellites equipped with infrared cameras, leading to future exploration and discoveries, Russell said. For example, scientists could analyze the makeup of asteroids or planets to better understand how the universe formed. Explorers also could scout for resources, such as ice water, to drill while traveling through space.
Lockheed Martin has been working on SkyFire for four to five years, a typical amount of time, Russell said. The full-time staff ranges from six to 10 people, although Russell listed several other Lockheed Martin locations that are helping with the project.
University of Colorado students will be involved in the process. Russell said including students is a critical element of cultivating the next-generation workforce.
“There’s more awareness that to really keep something good going, you want to invest in it,” Russell said. “If you don’t make that a goal or a priority, it’s not going to take care of itself.”
He said it’s important to give students the opportunity to figure out what they want to be doing before they walk through the doors of their first jobs. These experience also help young people also know what they’re talking about when they first start.
This is Russell’s first time as principal investigator. He reflected back to watching his first launch at the Kennedy Space Center when he was young and participating in a program similar to what the CU students will be doing.
He said one of the things he’s most excited for is the launch because “on this day, I don’t actually have anything to worry about.”