NewSpace Interview with Cislunar Explorers

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What Is the Background of Cislunar Explorers’s Top Management?

Mason Peck is an associate professor at Cornell University and former NASA Chief Technologist. He has worked as a consultant with spacecraft contractors including Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. He is the principal investigator of the Cislunar Explorers team and related research efforts, including electrolysis propulsion and slosh-damping stabilized spinning spacecraft architecture.

Kyle Doyle is a Ph.D. student in aerospace and systems engineering at Cornell University. He is supported by a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, and Dr. Peck is the chair of his Ph.D. committee. While at Cornell, he has collaborated with NASA Langley and JPL. He is the lead engineer of the Cislunar Explorers team.

Our team is fortunate to have the support of both Cornell University and the National Space Society. The team consists primarily of undergraduate students--about a dozen at any one time--plus several graduate students as technical leads, and Dr. Peck as the team leader and advisor.

What Is Cislunar Explorers’s Core Product or Service and Its Unique Proposition to Their Market Sector?

No nanosatellite has ever left Earth orbit, and most are confined to their deployed low-Earth orbits. Nanosatellites lack proven, high-performance propulsion optitons to enable further exploration. Our lab presents new technologies targeted at gaps in nanosatellite mission capability; with this mission, we will demonstrate water electrolysis propulsion.

Water provides dense, inert storage of hydrogen and oxygen propellant in a low-pressure environment. Our system can provide over 500 m/s of Delta-V for a 3U CubeSat, with low power consumption, no actuated components, and no toxic materials. This technology enables near- and deep-space missions at the nanosatellite scale. There is also the future potential for in-situ resource utilization of water to refuel spacecraft. If water from Earth can be used as propellant, so can water from anywhere else. The increasingly apparent abundance of water in the Solar System makes this an appealing option for extending the lifetime of future deep space missions.

What Are Cislunar Explorers’s Growth Objectives over the next 5 Years?

Within the next two years, we will launch a pair of 3U CubeSats as technology demonstration missions. Our current launch campaign intends to secure a spot on NASA's Exploration Mission 1 in 2019. From there, our spacecraft will seek to achieve lunar orbit using electrolysis propulsion and optical navigation. The spacecraft will remain in lunar orbit for approximately one year before performing a deliberate crash into the surface. The prize money available via NASA's CubeQuest challenge for a successful mission--up to $1.5M for achieving lunar orbit--is substantial and enticing. However, our primary goal in pursuing this mission is to prove our new technologies and thus address key gaps in nanosatellite capability.

What Competitive Changes Does Cislunar Explorers’s Envisage Within Key Markets over the next 5 Years?

In the next few years, nanosatellites will become more numerous and go farther than ever before. NASA's secondary payloads program for the EM-1 mission, the same one we are competing for a launch opportunity on, will bring thirteen CubeSats to the Moon and beyond. As the first nanosatellites beyond Earth orbit, the specific technologies flown on these CubeSats will shape the near- and deep-space nanosatellite market for years to come.

In addition, the availability of nanosatellite launch opportunities will grow significantly. Reusable rocket technology and new rideshare programs will both increase the number and decrease the cost of nanosatellite launches. If the EM-1 secondary payloads are successful, additional secondary payload opportunities for exploration missions beyond Earth orbit will be offered.

With proven new capabilities for interplanetary nanosatellites, and more opportunities for nanosatellites in general, we will see increased diversification in nanosatellite missions and commercialization. Nanosatellites will have arrived as not just a niche product for technology demonstrations and Earth orbiting experiments, but as low-cost alternatives or additions for a wide range of space missions. This is an exciting time for the nanosatellite field, but there should be caution as well: Increased proliferation of small spacecraft in Earth orbit will make the issue of space debris ever-more pressing. This is especially true as more nanosatellites begin to operate more LEO, and thus remain in orbit longer.

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