The Cornell University team CisLunar Explorers (cislunar means "between
Earth and the moon") and their eponymously named satellite - actually
two adjoining satellites - are taking part in a NASA program called the
Cube Quest Challenge.
But the CisLunar Explorer satellites are unique because the only form of
propulsion on board these these two small (30 centimeters or so)
L-shaped craft is water.
The idea is the brainchild of Mason Peck who works at Cornell University
but used to be NASA’s chief technologist. He has always wanted to figure
out a way to get beyond rockets as a way to push our spacecraft beyond
“A lot of the mass we send into orbit these days is in the form of
rockets – the only way we get anything into space,” he said in a Cornell
press release. “But what if we could use what’s already there? If we
could do that, if we could refuel spacecraft while they’re already in
Here’s how it works: The craft is two connected satellites that will
gradually separate from each other, both shaped like the English letter
"L." Water is stored in the lower part of the L . Energy from the sun
will electrolyze the water into its two parts, hydrogen and oxygen. Put
the hydrogen, oxygen and a spark together and you get a bang that
provides thrust, with water as the only by-product.
And it turns out water is pretty plentiful out in space. Icy comets are
full of it, and NASA is currently in the process of looking for it on a
number of rocky near-earth asteroids. The newest theories suggest that
most of the water on our planet may have come from asteroids or comets
when the ancient Earth was being bombarded with space junk in its
Another cool thing about the CisLunar Explorer is how the team is
teaching it to navigate its way through space.
The idea is to copy how ancient mariners used the moon, sun and stars to
fix their position on the oceans.
Once the twin satellite halves separate after launch they will spin
around each other on their way to the moon to keep them from going off
course. They will be equipped with cameras and be constantly taking
pictures of the sun, Earth and the moon, and comparing their positions
and their size.
Of the 10 teams competing, the top three winners will hitch a ride on
board NASA’s space launch system in early 2018. The competition is in
four stages and the Cornell team has been in the top three in stages one
and two. The winners of this third stage will be announced in about a
month, and the final three winners will be announced in early 2017.