Forty-four years ago Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon. While NASA currently has no plans to return, an enterprising non-profit and group of Do-It-Yourself engineers is building a spacecraft, putting it into lunar orbit and inviting the public and students to participate. Named LunarSail, the goal of the project is to use crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and social media to give people the opportunity to participate in developing a spacecraft that will not only go into space, but also travel to the Moon. LunarSail will prove the ability of a compact nanosatellite-class spacecraft under solar sail propulsion to leave Earth orbit, navigate a lunar orbit rendezvous trajectory and execute orbital insertion around the Moon.
Meaningful science in a small package
Produced in cube-shaped packages with dimensions just 10 centimeters on each side, CubeSats have enabled relatively economical space access for industrial, academic and private organizations. These groups previously have had a difficult time affording the high costs associated with developing and launching larger satellites. CubeSats, however, can cost less than $50,000, putting them within reach of even the individual experimenter. Already, several CubeSats have been successfully placed in Earth orbit by amateur groups, schools and government agencies, including NASA’s first experimental solar sail spacecraft, NanoSail-D.
Despite their small size, CubeSats are capable of doing real science experiments and observations, thanks to the availability of an abundance of miniaturized electronic, computer and data acquisition components. LunarSail is no exception. The project has two primary science objectives. The lengthy travel time to the Moon - significantly longer than the two days it took the Apollo astronauts - will enable detailed time studies of this region of space. The spacecraft will measure the environment between the Earth and Moon, including radiation and solar wind dynamics as well as micrometeoroid impacts in this region of space. Once captured by the Moon’s gravity, LunarSail will follow a complex orbital pattern as it settles into a final stable lunar orbit. This will enable the spacecraft to create detailed 3D maps of the gravitational field and flow of the solar wind around the Moon. Mapping the gravity around the Moon will enable us to create an accurate picture of its hidden structure.
The mission has long-term value as well. The measurements taken during the transit to lunar orbit will benefit all unmanned and manned spacecraft that fly through the Earth-Moon system. Observations made after reaching the Moon will add to our knowledge of the internal structure of Earth’s largest natural satellite.
A space mission for everyone, by everyone
We are inviting everyone to participate in the LunarSail project as part of our goal to promote STEM education and the benefits of space exploration. The public, especially students, will be involved in the design and flying of an actual space project and contribute to the assembly, testing and science observations of the mission. We call this a "citizen space mission".
In keeping with the concept of a space mission for everyone, LunarSail is a crowdfunded project taking advantage of the various crowdfunding resources available on the internet. A substantial amount of the development budget is being fulfilled via contributions from private citizens and supporters of commercial space exploration. Just two weeks into our fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, we were over halfway to our goal for phase one. Contributions aren’t limited to financial donations. Individuals may also contribute hardware, labor, programming and their own ideas, becoming participants and co-owners of the mission and stakeholders in its success.
Because of our focus on public outreach, we’re integrating social media into every aspect of the project, from development and assembly through launch and once the spacecraft is in space. The public is invited to submit messages, graphics, music and short video clips that will be stored onboard the spacecraft. We are particularly interested in contributions from students, artists, musicians and other creative individuals. Once in lunar orbit, LunarSail will play back the recorded works on a small screen while a camera is trained on them with the Moon in the background. The sight of Earth rising over the Moon behind a recording being played back will become a highly-prized memento of the mission for the contributor.
An open source space mission
LunarSail is an open source project. Except for restricted or third-party proprietary material, hardware designs and source code will be available to the general public on the project website. LunarSail’s primary computer is planned to be based on the Raspberry Pi single-board computer running an open source real-time operating system. As with other aspects of the project, anyone with skills that may contribute to the success of the mission is being invited to participate.
LunarSail will make history as the first successful solar sail mission conducted by the private sector and the first solar sail to orbit another celestial body. Most importantly, LunarSail is a mission of inspiration and exploration. It will inspire young students to pursue careers in science and engineering. For the wider public audience, the mission will demonstrate the importance of a vibrant commercial space industry and space exploration.