University team plans water-powered trip to the moon

U.S. university students are set to place a satellite powered by water into lunar orbit in just over a year.

It’s the brainchild of Cornell University’s Mason Peck. He used to be NASA’s chief technologist and he’s always wanted to find a new way — not traditional rockets — to push spacecraft through the solar system.

“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. “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 space …”

What is “already there” in space? Water. 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.

Here’s how it works: After hitching a ride to Earth orbit on the Space Launch System, the craft’s two connected satellites would separate. Energy from the sun would split water in the base of the L-shaped satellites into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Igniting the gas provides thrust, and water is the only byproduct.

Drawing of two satellites separated (Courtesy of Kyle Doyle)
A rendering of the Cislunar Explorer CubeSat separating after deployment (Courtesy photo)

Selfies all the way to the moon

The planned CisLunar Explorer spacecraft combines new tech with old techniques to navigate through space.

Onboard cameras will constantly take pictures of the sun, Earth and the moon, comparing their positions and their size.

Based on where they are at any given moment, the parts of the CisLunar Explorer will do the math to figure out their position.

“‘Okay, I must be here, because these bodies look like this,’” is how Cornell engineer Kyle Doyle explains it. “It’s very much like ancient explorers using the sun and moon to navigate.”

Cornell’s team is in the final stages of NASA’s CubeQuest challenge; three winners will hitch a ride to Earth orbit on the Space Launch System in early 2018.