These two tiny spacecraft will help pave the way for astronauts to return to the moon

These two tiny spacecraft will help pave the way for astronauts to return to the moon

by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com

If NASA astronauts land on the moon as planned in 2024, they’ll have an advantage their Apollo predecessors lacked: insights gathered by tiny robotic spacecraft that visit the moon before them.

NASA has announced the first two such projects selected to fly as part of the Artemis program to land astronauts on the moon: Lunar Flashlight and the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE). The missions represent the next step for the small spacecraft, known as cubesats, which became available for Earth orbit in the 1990s as electronics and sensors shrank to allow bread-box-sized (or slightly larger) satellites to perform scientific work. Since then, cubesats have become so powerful that they are used regularly for Earth observations. And the first interplanetary cubesats successfully flew to Mars in 2018 with the NASA InSight mission, so the spacecraft are becoming hardy enough for deep-space missions.

Thanks to their diminutive size, cubesats are both easy to pack on a rocket and cheap to launch. They often ride along with larger satellites. As NASA’s Artemis program aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2024, NASA is planning to launch the first lunar cubesats in 2021.

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