Arizona Technology and Innovation: ASU CubeSat Mission

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Arizona State University has been selected by NASA to design, build and operate a CubeSat mission. Cubesats are tiny satellites about the size of a shoe box. ASU will work on the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or “LunaH-Map” for short, which will produce the most detailed map to-date of the Moon’s water deposits. ASU geologist Craig Hardgrove of the School of Earth and Space Exploration proposed the mission and will be overseeing it as principal investigator and will tell us more.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of Arizona Technology and Innovation looks at a locally based effort to find water on the moon. ASU has been selected by NASA to lead a mission that will produce the most detailed map to date of the moon's water deposits. ASU geologist Craig Hardgrove of the School of Earth and Space Exploration is the mission's principal investigator. I think you actually proposed this too didn't you?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: I did, yes.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations on that. We're talking about a lunar cube set.

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Right.

TED SIMONS: So what are we talking about?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: It's a spacecraft the size of a shoebox. So it's one of the smallest spacecraft that we've sent out into the solar system that we hope to acquire some data that's on par with what we've sent with the large planetary science missions.

TED SIMONS: And we're talking the lunar polar hydrogen mapper?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Hydrogen mapper. We're going to use a pair of neutron detectors to look for water that's in these permanently shadowed craters at the south pole that never see sunlight ever and we think there's hydrogen bound up in water ice down in there. Because we can't easily see with a flash light or anything like this, we want to use neutron detectors to figure it out.

TED SIMONS: And I want to get to that aspect of it but back to the spacecraft, you're saying that it's actually the size of a shoebox?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: It's a big shoebox. Maybe the size of a NBA or NFL football player's shoebox but it has deployable solar panels, it's a little bit of a spring to action once we are deployed from the main rocket, but you can see the solar panels on the side, a camera and the neutron detectors will be mounted on the face.

TED SIMONS: How heavy is that thing?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: 10 kilograms or so.

TED SIMONS: How heavy is that thing? [ Laughter ] How many pounds?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: The conversion there, I don't know.

TED SIMONS: As far as what it's made of, what's it made of?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Aluminum probably, mostly aluminum. It's going to be very light. And so there's also the detectors themselves are made of some materials called scintillators, plastic and all the components will be space hardened, ready for space flight. There's some components you'll be familiar with like computer boards in your personal computer ready for space and other elements, the optics of the camera and heaters and other various components, shrunk down to fit inside.

TED SIMONS: Cost of something like this?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: The cost is going to be on par with something that's like one to 10% of a typical NASA discovery mission. This is a very new field that NASA is exploring in terms of what we can do in planetary science.

TED SIMONS: It's very new but it sounds like it's very effective, too. I mean, this could be quite the efficient way to get out there into space.

CRAIG HARDGROVE: It's very targeted yes. We're hitching a ride on the space launch system, it'll be launched in 2018. It's NASA's new rocket that will send astronauts to the moon, to Mars and beyond and so we actually -- there's a cube set launcher that's built in between two of the stages and we'll be mounted in there and when we get to the moon they're going to do just like Apollo, figure eight around the moon, similar type of procedure when we get really close, we'll dump off the experiments and several of them not just ours are bound for lunar orbit. There's three or four us.

TED SIMONS: As far as detailing a map of the moon's water deposits. You mentioned you're going to focus there on the south pole. Is that just simply because it never seems to get any sun?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Actually, there are areas of the north pole that are the same but we wanted the largest area possible and we wanted to optimize the amount of fuel that we have available. It's a small spacecraft so in order to get into a very stable orbit, we need to get into an elliptical orbit so we're going to skim very close over the south pole and thousands of kilometers above the north pole. It helps us to stabilize us so we use less fuel. We'd like to get both poles, but we picked the south pole because it was more appealing.

TED SIMONS: When you're skimming over the south pole and you're looking down through the shoebox at the lunar surface, how do you know what to look for and how do you know what to map?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Yeah, so the cool thing about neutron detectors is there are neutrons leaking out of every planetary surface that doesn't have an atmosphere. And the energies of those neutrons tell us about how much water is down there, how much hydrogen really and we just say that that's bound up in water and in the case of the moon, we think it's water ice and that could be deposited in those permanently shadowed craters from passing asteroids or comets or implanted by solar winds, there's a lot of reasons it could be there but one of the intriguing things on that map, you can see a dot that says l cross impact. There was a small spacecraft that rode along and crashed into that crater into one of those permanently shadowed craters on purpose, and we looked at the plume that came up and it was nearly pure water ice, which is incredible. But based on the other measurements that we have from lunar reconnaissance orbiter, and another spacecraft called lunar prospector, we're not sure how much is down there. The footprints of these spacecraft are very large so it could be parts per million water ice in a very large area or it could be up to pure water ice in a very concentrated pocket of this permanently shadowed crater. We want to send this spacecraft to the moon to figure out exactly where it is in those permanently shadowed craters.

TED SIMONS: This is important to know because...

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Because we want to understand the geological history of the moon. The hydrogen is either implanted by solar wind or it's being implanted by passing asteroids or comets and this will help us understand whether or not the hydrogen is there because the moon's pole has been wandering. The moon was presumably formed from this impact with the earth and so the pole has been wobbling over geological time. The other cool thing is for in situ resource utilization. We want to figure out where the resources are in the solar system. Hydrogen is a pretty important one. If we find there's a lot of it buried in a particular spot in the permanently shadowed spots, we want to send humans or robots to mine that water ice and help us get elsewhere in the solar system.

TED SIMONS: It could be used as fuel, other provisions. This is ASU's first interplanetary mission is it not?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Being led out of ASU yes, that's right.

TED SIMONS: Yeah, so how did you get around to proposing this to NASA?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: It was a lot of work, yeah. [ Laughs ] I mean, fortunately, there are a lot of great planetary science researchers at ASU, Mark Robinson, Jim Bell has been on, the deputy P.I. on this. He's been helping me out a lot with his experience. I had a lot of connections made through the department and the school. We're also part of the new space initiative at ASU where we're trying to partner with small business companies that are doing space research. That helps tremendously in this effort to make sure that we had all the partners that would be in place, there are people doing space research on neutron detectors that could provide a neutron detector for us that would fit in this tiny box. So there are all sorts of partnerships that we made and ASU is integral to that, the school of earth and space has a long history. So I really feel like I'm building on the shoulders of a bunch of successes at ASU already.

TED SIMONS: This is the third major NASA project with ASU this year, correct?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: I believe so.

TED SIMONS: So things are happening over there. And last thing about these cube sets, this could really change the nature of space exploration?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: We hope so, we hope so, yeah. Like I was saying the costs are lower. We can accept a little bit greater risk. We're hoping to not take as many risks but we're going to have to accept some at this price point but what we really want to happen is to see these space craft, the very targeted science investigations riding along on the main mission so they're not posing any risk to the main mission themselves and they're actually enhancing the science of these main large missions that are going out all over the solar system and eventually once we show this is successful, maybe we can send 100 cube sets to different places in the solar system and triple quadruple the number of science experiments that we're doing out there and the discovery that will happen. It's about exploration and discovery in the solar system.

TED SIMONS: It almost has a drone feel to it here on earth, like a little plane instead of a big plane going out and doing things a big plane can't do?

CRAIG HARDGROVE: A little bit exactly.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations on this and good luck with the project and we'll be keeping an eye on you.

CRAIG HARDGROVE: Thanks a lot.

TED SIMONS: Thank you.

Craig Hardgrove: geologist from Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration

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