Tampa team of inventors competes in NASA Cube Quest Challenge

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Credit: NASA

Team Miles, a group of 12 citizen scientists that formed out of the Tampa Hackerspace, is competing in NASA’s first in-space Centennial Challenge: the Cube Quest Challenge.The mission at hand is to build a CubeSat that’s capable of advanced propulsion and communication in deep space, and of achieving lunar orbit. According to NASA, this marks the first time that private entities have had the chance “to compete to operate at the moon and beyond.”

NASA is offering three free payload slots on its Space Launch System rocket, which is scheduled to blast off on Orion’s first unmanned lunar flyby in 2018. The top three teams at the end of four preliminary ground tournaments will win the free slots, enabling them to compete with a larger pool of paying contestants in the lunar and deep space derbies. One free slot is worth about $2.5 million, and opens up the chance to win prizes for the in-space achievements. In total, NASA is promising $5.5 million in ground tournament and derby prizes.

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Artist’s conception of the 2018 SLS Orion EM-1 launch. Credit: NASA

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Secondary payload deployer for CubeSats. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Team Miles propelling forward

Team Miles is doing well in the challenge, especially considering the financial disadvantages they’ve had to overcome as a grassroots operation. They were a top finisher in the first two ground tournaments, and entered the third as the only team without the financial backing of a university. The team is led by inventor Wes Faler, the CEO and founder of sponsor company Fluid & Reason, LLC. He and veteran software designer Don Smith are the brains behind the Miles spacecraft’s propulsion system, the ConstantQ plasma thruster.

Faler started working on the thruster about six years ago. It works by heating up iodine crystals and releasing the resulting vapors through a spacecraft’s exhaust. The Miles spacecraft will include 12 thrusters, a metal tank of iodine, and solar panels to heat up the iodine. In addition, the design will take advantage of the heat from eight to 12 lithium-ion batteries and a radio butted up against them.

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Preliminary ConstantQ thruster design. Credit: Marianne Galaris

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Preliminary prototype of the Miles spacecraft’s interior. Credit: Marianne Galaris

“We hardly ever dip into the batteries,” says Faler. “Solar [would be] enough, but the solar panels are at a fixed angle, because you lose points in the contest if you have motors that can move them. Motors move and can break down, therefore your chance of success will go down. So a one-time hinge that flips open and sticks, that’s okay. But a brushed motor or something in there, [the members of the NASA safety team] don’t like that. So we’re playing the game and choosing products to win the game. For the solar, we’re on like a nine-minute roll, and there are times in that nine-minute roll where we’ll touch the batteries for 10 seconds, and then a little later we’ll have enough to refill them.”

Other technologies Team Miles has invented for the spacecraft include the safety time-delay relay system and the command and control system (computer board). Dr. Kathleen Morse, who stepped down from the team to focus on her company, Yosemite Space, is still building their high-performance computer.

“It’s a nice redundant system, and I don’t think anything else touches it, especially at the price point,” says Faler.

As such, it’s aptly named the Resilient Affordable Cubesat Processor. Computer boards for CubeSats can range from $50,000 to $75,000.

“Other upcoming hybrid platforms share some of the same concepts, but the degree of adaptability and performance capabilities of RACP is superior,” explained a NASA Small Business Innovation Research review member in Morse’s A 6U CubeSat for Lunar Orbit and Beyond.

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Orbital path of Orion’s EM-1. Secondary payloads will deploy between the Van Allen belt and the moon. Credit: NASA

Trajectory of the Miles spacecraft

If Team Miles succeeds in hitching a free ride to space, they have two primary goals. The first is to win the lunar orbit portion of the lunar derby, which entails completing one full orbit around the moon. The reward for that alone is $1 million if one team wins, or $1.5 million if the teams tie and split the money. Team Miles’ second goal, which they announced in 2016, is to travel to asteroid 2016 HO3.

“The Miles spacecraft ejects just past the Van Allen belt on the way to the moon,” says Faler. “Then we hit the brakes hard, spin into orbit around the moon, and then after a little while we slingshot away from the moon and head toward [asteroid 2016 HO3].”

Since they are planning to travel to the asteroid, they will have the opportunity to compete in the deep space derby categories. Faler describes the objectives of the communication category as traveling 4 million kilometers and chatting back to Earth. There are rewards for the team that sends the most burst data in 30 minutes, sends the most aggregate data over 28 days, and simply survives the longest, which are also objectives in the lunar derby. The deep space derby includes an additional reward for sending data from the furthest distance.

“NASA’s Deep Space Network is the only one that can listen to things that far away,” says Faler, adding that the cost to get a picture from the moon is $20,000.

But the DSN will report for free during the CubeQuest challenge.

“If you host a NASA payload, DSN will have to decode your data for free,” he says.

The new gold rush

So why is Team Miles traveling to an asteroid instead of, say, Mars?

The U.S. government passed a law in 2015 giving citizens the right to mine asteroids and own the resources obtained from them. Since then, Luxembourg’s government has been increasingly aggressive in investing in a space program that will attract companies to base their asteroid-mining operations in Luxembourg.

“Considering the recent developments in Luxembourg, we feel that the asteroid mining market is heating up,” Faler says.

The following statistics are from a blog post on the Team Miles website:

“With the increased commercialization of space, the global market has been projected to grow to $5.32 billion annually by 2021. By 2018, 70% of satellites under 50KG in mass will be launched for commercial interests.”

NASA is also on board. At the Cube Quest Challenge summit in January of 2015, they presented their main goal as to “incentivize small spacecraft deep space operations capabilities development, leading to the economic achievement of NASA, other government agencies, academia, and industry objectives.”

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