A Mission To Sail To The Moon

A Mission To Sail To The Moon

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.

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. The Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) is a membership-based non-profit organization that got its start when HAM radio enthusiasts decided they wanted to place an amateur radio in space. The first Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio (OSCAR) satellite was launched as a piggyback payload on the December 12, 1962 launch of Discoverer 36 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSCAR). Since then, dozens of amateur small satellites have been successfully built and operated by AMSAT organizations around the world. Today. Most AMSAT spacecraft are based on the cubesat standard due to its low implementation cost and ease with which launch systems are able to accommodate cubesats as secondary payloads using a variety of standard payload adapters.

Despite widespread acceptance for LEO applications, cubesats have yet to see adoption for missions requiring Earth escape trajectories. This is due to the limited size of cubesats which constrains the power, propulsion and communications abilities of the craft. However, even the most basic cubesats possess power budgets and communications abilities that surpass older large interplanetary spacecraft, some of which are still active and communicating with Earth. This implies that, if the challenges of power communication can be successfully addressed, the cubesat could potentially be a viable platform for deep space missions.

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. It is a proposed cubesat mission intended to demonstrate practical application of solar sail technology for propulsion, trajectory/attitude control and rendezvous with another body in space. With LunarSail, we 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.

Model of the Japanese interplanetary unmanned spacecraft IKAROS at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague, Czech Republic

Model of the Japanese interplanetary unmanned spacecraft IKAROS at the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague, Czech Republic


As of 2013, there has been only one solar sail demonstration beyond Earth orbit, the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) IKAROS and (JAXA’s IKAROS homepage) mission to Venus.

The IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) spacecraft was launched on 21 May 2010, aboard an H-IIA rocket, together with the Akatsuki (Venus Climate Orbiter) probe and four other small spacecraft. IKAROS is the first spacecraft to successfully demonstrate solar-sail technology in interplanetary space. On 8 December 2010, IKAROS passed by Venus at about 80,800 km (50,200 mi) distance, completing the planned mission successfully, and entered its extended operation phase.

The IKAROS probe is the world’s first spacecraft to use solar sailing as the main propulsion. It plans to demonstrate four key technologies (comments in parentheses refer to figure below):

  1. Deployment and control of a large, thin solar sail membrane (blue areas numbered 3)

  2. Thin-film solar cells integrated into the sail to power the payload (black rectangles numbered 4)

  3. Measurement of acceleration due to radiation pressure on the solar sail

  4. Attitude control via variable reflectance liquid crystal panels (orange rectangles numbered 2)

Diagram of Ikaros solar sail when unfurled, facing the sun

Diagram of Ikaros solar sail when unfurled, facing the sun. Credit: JAXA

The mission also includes investigations of aspects of interplanetary space, such as the gamma-ray burst, solar wind and cosmic dust. The probe’s ALADDIN instrument (ALDN-S and ALDN-E) measured the variation in dust density while its Gamma-Ray Burst Polarimeter (GAP) measured the polarization of gamma-ray bursts during its six month cruise.

LunarSail will build on the success of both NASA’s NanoSail-D and IKAROS. IKAROS is the first successful deep-space application of solar sail technology, but it is not a cubesat and did not orbit Venus. NanoSail-D was NASA’s first mission to use a solar sail and was a cubesat, but it was limited to Low Earth Orbit. LunarSail will be the first cubesat to leave LEO using a solar sail for primary propulsion and the first to use a sail to achieve an orbit around another body in the Solar System.

Just as important as the technical accomplishments, LunarSail represents a milestone for “citizen space exploration”. While professionals and outside suppliers are necessary for the creation of an appropriate design, assembly, test, launch and in-space operation, we are also inviting the public to participate with us during all phases of the mission, especially high school and university students as well as artists, musicians and other creative communicators.

A Citizen Space Mission

LunarSail is a different kind of space exploration mission. It is not a government project and 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.

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. By doing this, artists will be able to send their works into space and to the Moon and everyone will be able to send their messages into space.

We plan to integrate 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 will integrate social media into the software and communications architecture and utilize it to facilitate interaction with the public.

The concept is simple and inspiring. 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.

The LunarSail mission doesn’t have a predefined duration due to the variable time it may take to achieve lunar orbit and the fact that, once in orbit, mission duration will be determined by lifetime of the spacecraft and resources on the ground. As such, we have defined mission success to be accomplished when we have confirmation of a successful insertion into lunar orbit.

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