While NASA deservedly notes that the Space Launch System-boosted Orion spacecraft’s Artemis 1 mission is “exceeding performance expectation,” there is also an irksome development.

Deployed from the Space Launch System’s (SLS) adapter after its November 16 launch, a barrage of CubeSats – 10 of them – were released to space. These small, creative packages of technology, a mixture of U.S. and international spacecraft, were sent outward from a ring attached to the SLS upper stage.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft launches on the Artemis I flight test. Image credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Varied set of duties

The CubeSats are built to carry out a varied set of duties. For example, solar sailing to an asteroid, thruster testing, reconnoitering the Moon for ice, to even plopping down on the lunar landscape.

Not only are these innovative CubeSats constructed for achieving great things, each demanded loads of team time and resources. Meanwhile, they collectively represent a pushing of the boundaries to showcase what CubeSats can pull off.

The CubeSat family ready for launch inside adapter.
Image credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Telemetry terror

All that said it’s disappointing to hear that a number of the CubeSats have run into trouble, perhaps 50 percent of them.

Mike Sarafin, Artemis I mission manager, said in a recent briefing that ArgoMoon, BioSentinel, Equuleus, LunaH-Map and OMOTENASHI “are on a path to success.”

Meanwhile, the other five — LunIR, Lunar IceCube, NEA Scout, CuSP and Team Miles — “either have encountered technical issues post-deploy or have had intermittent communications or, in one case, did not acquire a signal with the communication asset that they had planned,” Sarafin added.

NASA’s NEA Scout’s large deployable solar sail.
Credit: NASA

For sure, telemetry terror has reared its ugly head.

Timed release

In a NASA blog, the space agency explained that all 10 CubeSats were successfully deployed via timer from the SLS adapter.

Japan’s OMOTENASHI lunar lander.
Credit: JAXA/NASA

“The CubeSats’ individual missions are separate from Artemis I,” the blog states. “The small satellites, each about the size of a shoebox, are inherently high-risk, high-reward and the teams are in various stages of mission operations or troubleshooting in some cases.”

LunIR
Image credit: Lockheed Martin

Viewing the CubeSats as “inherently high-risk” caught my eye. Why so? There are plenty of CubeSats successfully circling the Earth; companies have been formed based on constellations of shoebox-sized CubeSats.

Then there are CubeSats like NASA’s CAPSTONE, while troubled en route, it has now successfully settled into near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) operations around the Moon. And you can’t forget the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft zooming by the Red Planet in November 2018.

Linkage, root cause?

One wonders if there’s need for a “mishap board” to investigate if there’s any linkage or root cause between the problems encountered by the SLS-dispatched CubeSats?

Image credit: NASA/Morehead State University

Could the gaggle of hiccups and gotchas be sparked by hurricane and technical delays in getting SLS off-the-ground, or how long the CubeSats were attached inside the SLS adapter, or battery charging issues. There could be an “or…agami” of nested troubles.

Seemingly, some sort of post-mortem might be in order here – ostensibly of value to not only NASA but the pioneering CubeSat community too. That group of people put a lot of blood, sweat, tears, time, dedication and dollars into forging a bold avenue for deep space exploration.

Let’s try and shelve “inherently high risk” (sounds like “sure to fail”) and substitute a more pro-phrase term that evokes at least a hint of possible cutting-edge triumph.

Is this a teachable moment for all involved?

This is an opinion piece by Leonard David. Responses welcomed.

Credit: NASA

One Response to “Wait a Minute! A CubeSat Calamity?”

  • Nice article. My bet is that for some the batteries ran down, and you can always expect 20% failure even on this high profile NASA launch. Glad to see Japan’s OMOTENASHI lunar lander lives. It is roadmap to very low cost Lunar Lavatube/Skylight exploration, perhaps as ridealongs on SpaceX supported missions to the lunar orbit and surface (sometime NASA CLPS, sometime national pride projects).

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