Renee Cox, deputy manager for SLS payload integration, at SmallSat on Wednesday holds a model of an adapter ring that can accomodate six-unit and 12-unit cubesats between the SLS upper stage and Orion spacecraft. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

LOGAN, Utah — NASA is soliciting proposals to fly cubesats on the second flight of its Space Launch System, even as those cubesats chosen for the first SLS launch patiently await their ride.

At an agency town hall meeting during the Conference on Small Satellites Aug. 5, Renee Cox, deputy manager for SLS payload integration at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said the agency was planning to fly cubesats on Artemis 2, the second flight of the SLS, tentatively scheduled for 2022.

“Recently we achieved a level of maturity that has allowed us to identify performance margin, so that means we get to fly cubesats,” she said of the decision to add cubesats to the mission.

NASA announced in 2016 it would fly 13 cubesats on the first SLS mission, originally called Exploration Mission (EM) 1 and renamed Artemis 1 earlier this year. Those satellites include NASA-funded science and technology demonstration missions, payloads from international partners and competitors in the Cube Quest Challenge competition.

As with the Artemis 1 mission, the cubesats flying on Artemis 2 will be mounted on the inside of a stage adapter ring between the SLS upper stage and the Orion spacecraft, and will be deployed after Orion separates. Unlike Artemis 1, which will fly six-unit cubesats only, Cox said NASA will accept proposals for both six-unit and larger 12-unit cubesats.

Cox said NASA hadn’t made a final selection of the dispenser hardware for the cubesats, but that it expected to be able to accommodate six-unit satellites weighing 12 kilograms and 12-unit satellites weighing 20 kilograms. Spacecraft should address what NASA calls “strategic knowledge gaps” regarding robotic or human exploration of the moon or Mars. The solicitation is open to U.S. companies, organizations and universities as well as NASA centers, with proposals due Nov. 4.

The opportunity to fly cubesats on Artemis 2 is part of the latest call for the CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides launches for cubesats developed by universities or NASA centers, either through rideshare launch opportunities or International Space Station deployments. It offers free launches for cubesats up to three units in size, and subsidizes the launch of larger cubesats. 

The program has launched 95 cubesats to date, said Scott Higginbotham, mission   manager for the program, at the town hall meeting, with 45 more manifested for launch through the end of 2020. “We’ll keep flying as fast as we can,” he said.

As NASA seeks proposals for cubesats to fly on Artemis 2, the 13 selected for Artemis 1 remain are making final preparations for launch. Among them is LunaH-Map, a cubesat being built at Arizona State University that NASA selected in 2015 for development and launch on the SLS. The six-unit cubesat will orbit the moon, making close passes over the south pole to map the abundance of hydrogen there to help scientists identify water ice deposits.

At the time of its selection, NASA expected the first SLS launch to take place in late 2018, a date that has slipped by at least two years. In an Aug. 4 presentation at the conference, Craig Hardgrove, principal investigator for LunaH-Map, said he expected the spacecraft to be completed and ready for delivery by March 2020.

He added the project is keeping to that schedule amid speculation that the Artemis 1 launch could be delayed to sometime in 2021. Asked if he thought SLS would be ready for launch late next year as current scheduled, he responded, “Wondering that too!” 

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...