Spaceflight Insider

Lockheed Martin’s ‘SkyFire’ aims to boldly go where no other CubeSat has gone

Skyfire imaging the moon

SkyFire will use an infrared camera to help expand NASA’s understanding of the Moon. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has signed a contract with NASA to launch and deploy its 6U SkyFire CubeSat on the agency’s maiden launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018 in an effort to increase our understanding of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Though destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) are normally the domain of much larger spacecraft, SkyFire will launch as a secondary payload on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and take advantage of the larger vehicle’s ability to ferry the smaller CubeSat to lunar vicinity.

SkyFire will use a groundbreaking infrared camera to help expand NASA's understanding of the moon. Artist's depiction courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

SkyFire’s lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration,” said John Ringelberg, Lockheed Martin’s SkyFire project manager in a press release issued by the company. “Partnering with NASA for another element of the Orion and Space Launch System EM-1 flight is very exciting.”

SkyFire will be outfitted with a high-quality infrared camera, which is both lighter and less complex than previously-deployed hardware, and will enable scientists to identify lunar features with the relatively diminutive satellite. The reduction in mass should translate to lower payload costs and lessen the impact on the spacecraft’s maneuvering system.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” said James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

Should it prove successful in its lunar proving ground, Lockheed Martin feels SkyFire’s infrared technology can have a significant impact on future planetary missions. “With less mass and better instruments, we can get closer, explore deeper and learn more about the far reaches of our solar system,” Russell concluded.

SkyFire is one of thirteen CubeSats slated to launch on EM-1 as part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. The secondary payloads will be carried to cislunar space housed in the Orion Stage Adapter (OSA) and will be deployed once Orion has travelled a safe distance away from the discarded Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

CubeSats belong to the “nanosatellite” class of research spacecraft and are sized in standardized units. One cube, or 1U, is approximately 4 by 4 by 4 inches (10 cm × 10 cm × 11 cm), and typically have a mass of approximately 3 pounds (1.33 kilograms) per 1U cube when arranged in 1U, 2U, and 3U configurations. A larger 6U CubeSat may tip the scales at more than 26.5 pounds (12 kilograms), with the deployment method determining the final mass.

With space for only a modest amount of maneuvering fuel, CubeSats were generally limited to low-Earth orbit after being deployed from the International Space Station, or as a secondary payload on an Earth-orbiting satellite launch. SLS’s EM-1 will be one of the first opportunities afforded to CubeSats to travel beyond near-Earth space.

SLS will be carrying 13 "hitchhiker" payloads in the Orion Stage Adapter. Infographic courtesy of NASA.

SLS will be carrying 13 “hitchhiker” payloads in the Orion Stage Adapter. Image Credit: NASA


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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