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LunarSail - building and launching a CubeSat amateur satellite to orbit the Moon with a Solar Sail.

August 24 - EXCITING NEWS! Our team leader, Matthew Travis, has been appointed as the Social Media Chair for the Yuri's Night 2014 Global Executive Team. Be sure to check out Yuri's Night http://www.yurisnight.net

We want to thank everyone who has pledged to our project so far and ask for continued support. Without your contributions, this dream wouldn't be possible. We're on track and continuing to obtain hardware, make progress on early software designs and picking up steam, so thank you so much for supporting us.

Latest Updates:

August 13, 2013 - Seeking A Launch Opportunity - NASA has opened up the next opportunity for launching nanosatellites in the CubeSat Launch Initiative. NASA will fly selected projects at no cost as secondary payloads on existing missions. We will be submitting a proposal and hopefully will be one of the projects chosen by NASA. Our proposal is due by November 26. You can learn more about the CubeSat Launch Initiative HERE and read the text of NASA's Announcement of Opportunity HERE.

August 7, 2013 - Here is the latest update to our project budget. This covers the amount to purchase and assemble the spacecraft.

August 5, 2013 - We purchased a 5-megapixel still and video camera for the Raspberry Pi. This is the camera we're going to be modding and using for the spacecraft to take pictures of itself and the display screen that will be mounted to the side of it.

August 1, 2013 - We ordered a single-board Parallella computer from Adapteva. This computer, about the same size as the Raspberry Pi, has a dual-core primary CPU but also a 16-core co-processor! We may use it to offload some of the more computationally intensive tasks.

July 24, 2013 - A new Embedded Pi module from Element14 arrived today! This is going to be a bridge between RasPi and Arduino shields.

July 20, 2013 - We reached over halfway to our Kickstarter goal... the total of which will enable us to buy the hardware for our spacecraft.

July 14, 2013 - We're starting to look at options for a real-time OS. ChibiOS/RT is one of the candidates right now since it has already been ported to RasPi.

July 9, 2013 - We added 5 more reward levels, from $35 all the way up to $2,500.

July 3, 2013 - We received a donation of 20 desktop Windows PC's to use in design and development. Some will be used for spacecraft design. We'll put Linux on others and use them for software development. We can also use them in our ground station.

Today, it is possible, and has been accomplished many times, for a group of regular people (i.e. not millionaires) to build small satellites called CubeSats and have them launched into orbit. There's nothing new about that. However, nobody has put a CubeSat into lunar orbit yet. Even so, the technology currently exists to do just that and doesn't require a budget the size of NASA.

Common sense seems to suggest that CubeSats don't have the power or the huge rocket they would need to reach the Moon. Common Sense can be deceptive though. It doesn't take a more powerful spacecraft... the satellite doesn't care what orbit it's in - it just does its thing. It also doesn't require a more powerful rocket. All we need is a rocket powerful enough to put the spacecraft into an appropriate orbit around the Earth and then we can take over and get ourselves to the Moon. How is that possible without using another big rocket to get there? Good question...

A Solar Sail is the answer. They are lightweight and compact enough to be carried by a small CubeSat. Once unfurled in space, a solar sail has the ability to propel a small spacecraft from Earth orbit outward on a trajectory toward the Moon, at which point the Moon's gravity will capture it and hold it in orbit  (it will be moving slow enough that there's no chance of it just zipping past).

That's what we're going to do, and we want YOU, and everyone, to be a part of it, to participate in the first civilian, non-government mission to orbit the Moon. A commercial mission - not NASA - and the first private sector mission to the Moon as well as the first "amateur" satellite to reach lunar orbit. And hey, it'll be fun and exciting!

Essentially, LunarSail is an effort to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to navigate itself into a lunar trajectory and insert itself into Lunar orbit. A primary objective of the LunarSail mission is to serve as a testbed for cubesat operations beyond low Earth orbit and applications requiring cislunar or interplanetary rendezvous. LunarSail will take advantage of the cubesat platform to conduct a first of its kind mission to use a solar sail to send a spacecraft to the Moon and then utilize the sail’s unique characteristics to navigate into lunar orbit.

Launch Options

We are looking for a low-cost or, preferably, no-cost launch opportunity. NASA offers launch rides to orbit for CubeSats as secondary payloads under the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CLI) and Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. NASA currently has a request for proposals for the next round of CLI missions with a due date for proposals of November 26, 2013. We will be submitting a proposal and hope to obtain a launch through CLI. Additionally, the major U.S. launch providers offer launches on a space-available basis for secondary payloads. You can watch presentations about both ELaNa and CLI in the videos below.

I have been asked how we will be using the funds raised. 100% of the money raised will go to offset costs of assembly of LunarSail. We have an updated budget estimate posted in an update on here and also on our website at http://www.lunarsail.com/updated-hardware-budget-estimated/ so please feel free to check it out and see where your money is going. Thanks so much!

Don't forget  to visit our website http://www.lunarsail.com

LunarSail is a cubesat-based space mission established by the  Aerospace Research & Engineering Systems Institute, Inc. – a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization dedicated to promoting space exploration and STEM education through hands-on educational projects and public outreach. LunarSail is designed to use a solar sail to propel a small spacecraft from Earth orbit onto a lunar orbit rendezvous trajectory and execute orbital insertion around the Moon.

The invention of the CubeSat ushered in a revolution in the utilization and exploration of space by both governmental and civilian users. With a total volume as small as a 1,000 cubic centimeters, cubesats have  enabled relatively economical space access for industrial, academic and private organizations that previously couldn’t afford the high costs associated with developing and launching larger satellites. They have also enabled innovative low-cost missions to be conducted by NASA and space agencies around the world.

NCube-2 CubeSat, a typical CubeSat configuration minus outer skinNCube-2 CubeSat, a typical CubeSat configuration minus outer skin
NCube-2 CubeSat, a typical CubeSat configuration minus outer skinNCube-2 CubeSat, a typical CubeSat configuration minus outer skin

To date, most cubesat spacecraft have been placed in low-Earth orbit. Many of these conducted highly-focused science experiments or technology demonstrations. Perhaps the most common application of the cubesat platform is in the area of amateur satellites and amateur radio.

Fundamentally, solar sails utilize the solar wind to provide the “push” to propel a spacecraft through space. Theoretically, they may be effective anywhere inside the solar system where the solar wind is present. In practice, a solar sail uses an ultrathin membrane that is deployed in space to form a sail not unlike that on a sailboat. The sail is controlled and maneuvered so that it is able to use the force and direction of the solar wind to literally sail through space, guiding itself much as a sailboat changes trajectory by altering the position of the sail against the wind.

LunarSail is an effort to demonstrate the ability of a spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to utilize the sail in order to not only leave Earth orbit but also to navigate itself into a cislunar trajectory and insert itself into Lunar orbit. LunarSail will become the first spacecraft to steer itself to the Moon and enter orbit under its own power for the entire journey, unlike other spacecraft that were placed into trans-lunar insertion by means of chemical propulsion and then coasted to the Moon with only minor course corrections such that the gravitational pull of the moon “captured” them in orbit.

Despite their small size, CubeSats have proven themselves to be capable of conducting world-class science. LunarSail is no different. We have specific investigations planned for both the trans-lunar journey and after we are captured by the Moon's gravity. The results of LunarSail's data collection will be of value to scientists studying the Earth-Moon system as well as NASA and commercial human spaceflight providers, especially those who have set their sights on putting people on the lunar surface.

Lunar intercept trajectory. Credit: Willem van der Weg and Massimiliano Vasile/ University of Strathclyde, Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory
Lunar intercept trajectory. Credit: Willem van der Weg and Massimiliano Vasile/ University of Strathclyde, Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory

LunarSail will be making important observations during the journey from Earth orbit to lunar capture. This region of space is largely unexplored because spacecraft leaving Earth generally take only a few days to pass beyond the Moon. However, in the future there will be various laboratories, factories, observatories and other facilities populating this "near deep space" area. There will be people living and working in the space between Earth and the Moon. Because LunarSail will take longer than just a few days to traverse the 240,000 mile distance, it will be able to make observation and collect data for an extended period of time.

LunarSail will measure the solar wind and radiation strength and flow in this region as well as make detailed counts of micrometeoroid strikes. It will be able to take measurements over time as well, rather than instantaneous counts, allowing us to characterize the environment as the Earth revolves around the Sun. When there is a coronal mass ejection (i.e. solar flare), we will be able to make detailed measurements of the changes in the solar wind as the shock passes the spacecraft as well as measure the intensity of the event. Rather than being limited to taking instantaneous measurements or collecting data for just a day or two, LunarSail will be able to conduct observations over a period of weeks or longer. These are just a few of the science investigations enabled by LunarSail that take advantage of its longer travel time to the Moon.

Achieving lunar capture or quasi-capture. Credit: Willem van der Weg and Massimiliano Vasile/ University of Strathclyde, Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory
Achieving lunar capture or quasi-capture. Credit: Willem van der Weg and Massimiliano Vasile/ University of Strathclyde, Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory

After LunarSail is captured by the Moon's gravity, it will slowly refine and lower its orbit as it settles into a final stable lunar orbit. It will make a complex series of orbits from a hundred to thousands of miles above the lunar surface in order to achieve this. During this time, instruments aboard the spacecraft will measure the flow of solar wind around the Moon and radiation intensity and micrometeoroid impact counts. LunarSail will also measure the strength of the Moon's gravity at various altitudes and positions over the Moon and create a 3-dimensional map of the Moon's gravitational field, which will reveal the internal structure of the Moon and shape of its interior layers.

Here is an early SolidWorks 3D CAD model of one of the 1U modules that will make up LunarSail. This is just a conceptual model, of course.
Here is an early SolidWorks 3D CAD model of one of the 1U modules that will make up LunarSail. This is just a conceptual model, of course.

To date, we have procured the spacecraft's primary computer system and are in early development of it's command and control software. We have also procured and built several desktop Windows and Linux PC's for use in software development, prototyping and mission planning. The Windows machines have been outfitted with Matlab, LabView and Adobe Creative Suite. We are working on getting Autocad as well.

We are in the process of assembling a prototype spacecraft structure in which we will integrate the computer system and prototype sail boom assembly so that we will be able to commence testing in the latter half of 2013. These activities are currently being undertaken at our organization's main office in Titusville, FL. but we will be seeking more spacious lab space within the next few months. 

More than two dozen desktop PC's were donated to our cause for development. 19 are shown stacked here.
More than two dozen desktop PC's were donated to our cause for development. 19 are shown stacked here.
Here's some of our hardware, including a Raspberry Pi Model B module, various controller and telemetry boards and a protyping board.
Here's some of our hardware, including a Raspberry Pi Model B module, various controller and telemetry boards and a protyping board.
This is a Raspberry Pi 5-megapixel camera that can take still and 1080p HD video. This is one of the two cameras we'll be taking to space. This one will be focused on the spacecraft itself.
This is a Raspberry Pi 5-megapixel camera that can take still and 1080p HD video. This is one of the two cameras we'll be taking to space. This one will be focused on the spacecraft itself.

We have optimistic goals but also the full understanding that there are  many variables that could alter our milestone dates. For example, obtaining a launch slot is a pretty complex process and there is no way to guarantee finding a ride during a precise timeframe. It's not like buying an airline ticket..... yet! With that in mind, our internal development schedule for the spacecraft itself is roughly as follows:

  • June - December 2013 - Acquisition of low-level hardware items, begin software architecture design
  • December 2013 - Preliminary design options presented
  • First half 2014 - Procurement of spacecraft chassis and primary sub-systems
  • June 2014 - Critical Design Review of spacecraft chassis, primary systems and science experiments
  • December 2014 - Final Design Review and acceptance for the entire spacecraft
  • June 2015 - Delivery of solar sail
  • June 2016 - Assembly complete
  • December 2016 - Q/A and acceptance testing complete, flight ready status

LunarSail is a different kind of space exploration mission, a "citizen space mission". while remaining open to – and in fact seeking – government-provided funding and assistance in finding a suitable launch opportunity, a substantial amount of our budget is being fulfilled via crowdfunding and private donations. Through crowdfunding, private citizens are able to donate any amount, and not just money but also labor, programming and ideas -becoming co-owners of the mission, stakeholders in its success.

Just Added New Reward Levels!

Basic cubesat hardware can be purchased from off-the-shelf suppliers or built from scratch for under $10,000. The addition of avionics, communication and solar power cells may add another $10-20,000 to the cost. We also need to build our own spacecraft computer systems, software and outfit lab space with computers and test equipment. We believe this can be accomplished for less than $20,000. In total, the project will require less than $50,000 to build the spacecraft.

This figure doesn’t include the cost of the solar sail. For that, we will be partnering with industry and possibly earn a government grant to supply the sail. Additionally, we aren’t factoring in the launch costs at this point. Many options for getting into space exist, including obtaining a “free” launch as a secondary payload on a mission with extra capacity or government sponsorship and funding for a launch opportunity on a private launch system.

We are integrating social media outreach into the mission, in particular once the spacecraft is in space. In addition to radio, cameras and telemetry, we will use social media as another means of communicating to and from the spacecraft. We are inviting creative people and the public to submit messages, artwork, music and short video clips that will be stored onboard the spacecraft in a reserved area of computer memory storage.

During the transit to lunar orbit, LunarSail will periodically send out status updates and messages via social media – some will be automated and some commanded from the ground. After it enters lunar orbit, LunarSail will transmit the messages, graphics and video that have been stored on it back to Earth, for anyone and everyone to see and hear as long as they can pick up the signal from the spacecraft. Additionally, the items will be transmitted via social networks and displayed on the LunarSail website with attribution and captioning.

We are also interested in contributions of hardware. The spacecraft bus and main computer are relatively inexpensive. However, there is a lot more that goes into a space mission than simply the shell of a spacecraft. We will require electronics for the payloads, computers for our lab and and ground station and even things like office furniture.

Perhaps the most exciting area where you can get involved in LunarSail is with custom software development. We will need software created for use during development of the mission, applications for use on the ground and onboard software for the spacecraft’s computer system. LunarSail’s computer is based on the Raspberry Pi, which is a complete Linux-based single-board computer running on an ARM processor (http://www.raspberrypi.org). We welcome any Linux programmers (C++ preferred) and especially anyone who has experience developing applications for the Raspberry Pi.

Here is one of our Raspberry Pi single-board computers, provided by Element14.
Here is one of our Raspberry Pi single-board computers, provided by Element14.

We welcome assistance in the construction of the spacecraft and ground station. In this area, especially if you have prior small/amateur satellite assembly and test experience, in particular with AMSAT, your help will be invaluable in ensuring mission success.The basic spacecraft and ground systems will be very similar to other cubesat projects.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

The primary challenge will be obtaining the solar sail. We will work with an outside supplier with experience in manufacturing solar sails and large thin-film membranes materials. We will partner with the manufacturer and probably turn to NASA for consulting and assistance in prpocuring the sail.

The primary technical isk is, of course, a launch failure. However, that is not something under our control although we will work with the launch provider to ensure LunarSail is fully compliant with all the safety and quality requirements.

On the operational side, radiation exposure in space is the biggest challenge to overcome. We will need to provide shielding for the spacecraft's sensitive hardware, some of which may be provided by the sail itself. This is addressed in the project FAQ regarding the radiation risks and mitigation strategy.

FAQ

  • This is a generalized overview of the issue of exposure to high levels of radiation in space and our plan of attack to deal with it.

    Without a doubt, mitigating the negative effects of exposure to radiation in space is going to be the biggest challenge. This is complicated by the fact that not all of the spacecraft components are going to be space-rated to NASA or military requirements (nor do they need to be). However, as the STRaND-1 and PhoneSat nanosatellites successfully demonstrated, it is possible to utilize commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components. In the case of those spacecraft, they utilized was commercially available Android powered cellphones with minimal modification. The three NASA PhoneSats launched earlier this year were only planned to spend a week in space before re-entering, but STRaND-1, launched in February is still in orbit and alive as of August 1.

    It is interesting to note that, at one point, communication with STRaND-1 was lost for an extended period before unexpectedly returning in late July. This could have been due to a number of reasons, but radiation exposure is a strong possibility. Even a single charged particle can knock a spacecraft offline if it hits the CPU or memory. This is, in fact, our biggest concern.

    Designers follow several routes to making their spacecraft survivable in the high-radiation environment of space. Electronic components may be designed and manufactured from scratch to be rad-hard or tolerant of exposure to electromagnetic radiation. Second, shielding may be placed around components that are not rad-hard, including using the spacecraft struture itself to provide shielding. This is one of the methods used on the International Space Station's habitable modules. Third, systems may be made radiation tolerant by making critical subsystems and components redundant.

    We will put in practice all three methods where feasible. Where rad=hard components can be obtained at an acceptable cost, we will use them. The primary ADACS will be space-rated, so LunarSail shouldn't ever lose the ability to control its attitude or send and receive commands from Earth. However, some essential parts of the satellite, in particular the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, memory, etc., are not tolerant of radiation out of the box.

    Without mitigating or accomodating the effects of EM exposure, we would fully expect the spacecraft to have periods of downtime in response to exposure events. The effects could include things like memory corruption and even the shutdown of computers.

    To address this challenge, we will place shielding around sensitive components. Because of the mass of radiation shielding materials, we will have to shield only the components that could be affected by radiation exposure rather than, for example, wrapping the entire inside of the satellite body in a layer of lead. A side benefit of this is that we will be able to use the radiation shields to assist with thermal management.

    We will also employ redundant systems, specifically the computers and memory. Each will be duplicated on the spacecraft and integrated in such a way that they are not in-line with each other to minimize the chance of a single event taking out both systems. For example, placing memory modules at right angles to each other makes it less likely that a single cosmic ray or particle will be able to corrupt both sets of memory.

    During flight, backup systems will maintain an identical synchronized state to the primary system and ready to take over instantly. If one computer is taken out of commission due to a radiation hit or memory corruption, the secondary system will immediately take over. With the secondary system now in a primary role, the main system will be power-cycled, brought back into operation and error-checked. The systems will re-synchronize from the secondary to the primary and then the secondary system will become the default primary. LunarSail will be able to go through this kind of fail-over scenario repeatedly for at least a year as long as one of the systems isn't knocked out of commission permanently. Even then, there would still be usable life left in the spacecraft so long as the remaining system remains healthy.

    Handling redundancy and recovery will not only be an automatic process. The whole thing will be able to be commanded from the ground as well.

    Lastly, it is important to note that our requirements are much - much - lower than those of NASA, commercial satellites or the military. For one thing, we don't have human lives at stake. We also do not require 100% uptime. It is also not necessary to have reliability out to three-9's. If an image is corrupted, it's no big deal. If the spacecraft loses communication with Earth for a day, that is tolerable too. We are much more tolerant of transient events and our main concern is minimizing the chance of mission-ending anomalies. That's a very different, and more forgiving, standard than that for NASA or commercial spacecraft.

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    You will be mentioned on our social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.) as one of our donors. We will include your Facebook username and/or Twitter handle if you provide them.

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    All of the above, plus you will receive a limited edition mission patch and we will display your name on the LunarSail website as a contributor with a certificate. You will also receive a 2-DVD mission highlights video set of the final shuttle mission, STS-135.

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    We will take any picture you submit, with or without a personalized message, (G-rated of course) and broadcast it against the backdrop of the Moon for anyone on the ground with the capability of receiving the signal to see your photo. We will also send to you a high-quality framed print of the photo.

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    In addition to the rewards from all lower levels, at this level, we will not only capture a picture you submit and the Moon in the same photo, but we will also send to you a high-quality rendering of the photo on an aluminum canvas instead of paper. This will make your photo from space a timeless memorial to our accomplishments.

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    All of the perks for lower contributions plus you will receive a scale model of LunarSail (assembly required). Additionally, we will include your name, message and digitized photo on the spacecraft.

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    You will receive the rewards of all lower levels and also you will be able to select a target on the Moon for LunarSail to photograph. We will photograph the target and any picture you submit to us in the same frame and broadcast it back to Earth. We will send you a high-quality framed print of the photo.

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    All of the rewards from the lower contributions levels plus you will be able to select a target on the Moon for LunarSail to photograph. We will photograph the target and any picture you submit to us in the same frame and broadcast it back to Earth. We will also send to you a high-quality rendering of the photo on an aluminum canvas instead of paper. (See the picture of a printed-on-metal photo in our blog for an example of the quality).

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    All of the perks for lower contribution amounts plus a 4 square inch piece of prototype solar sail material! Additionally, you will be listed on the project website as an official sponsor of LunarSail.

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    ADVERTISE! Contributors at this level will receive all of the rewards of the lower levels in addition to the opportunity to place one piece advertising on the project website (250 x 400 pixels max size), be listed on our sponsor page and receive mention (with links, contact information, etc.) on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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    At this level of contribution, the donor will be allocated 1-hour of camera time on the spacecraft once it is in lunar orbit. Donors will be permitted to use the full capabilities of the camera to capture any target desired. Of course, we will work with the individual or group to plan an execute the shooting time.

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    For the hard-core supporter of commercial space, you will receive everything in the other reward levels plus a functional prototype of the LunarSail spacecraft that we will use during development and testing.

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