We are going to the Moon and we need your help!
The big picture goal is actually quite simple. Launch a breadbox sized spacecraft as a secondary payload with the SLS-EM1 mission scheduled to liftoff from Cape Canaveral in 2018, orbit the moon, win some prize money, navigate and establish a disposal orbit in the vicinity of Mars. The propulsion system in particular is on the critical path for development. As a fledgling space venture, we have neither the funding sources nor the facilities available from the likes of MIT, Cornell, and other current competitors in the CubeQuest Challenge.
Team Miles is a group of citizen scientists, engineers, makers and artists who have come together to accomplish this goal. After two successful rounds of competition and twenty months of research, development and testing, we find ourselves the only ranked team not sponsored by a university. To keep up with NASA’s deadlines, we need to fund additional testing of the propulsion system ASAP.
Our crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter launches June 30th. We could really use your help. Sign up and receive
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When our campaign concludes, we’ll be able to:
- Build a small vacuum chamber for thruster testing
- Build a set of valve prototypes
- Build a propellant tank
Our team formed around two former members of Part Time Scientists, an X Prize team dedicated to accomplishing a private Moon landing. The team soon swelled to twelve members including several additional experts in small satellite design, a member of the Mars Rover design team, and an engineer from SpaceX. We also included members from other disciplines to round out our business, creative and engineering capabilities.
The NASA CubeQuest Challenge is broken into three major areas. The first, a series of four Ground Tournaments, provides teams the ability to submit their designs to increasingly rigorous scrutiny from NASA in pursuit of prize money. NASA is awarding a total of $500,000 in ground tournament prize money of which any single team is eligible to secure a maximum of $100,000. So far, two ground tournaments have been completed and $250,000 in prizes have been awarded. The remaining prizes of the contest will be earned in space. The Lunar Derby and the Deep Space Derby provide for navigational and communications challenges totaling $5 million dollars. Only three teams will be offered berths as part of the secondary payload of the SLS launch vehicle.
On July 3, 2015, Team Miles submitted 221 pages to NASA for Ground Tournament 1. Fourteen teams submitted designs for this round. After a month of nail-biting and anticipation, NASA announced the results – Team Miles had won the round. Won. As in FIRST place. Here’s how the top five teams ranked
- Team Miles
- MIT KitCube
- Cornell CISLunar Explorers
- Novel Engineering
Each of the top five teams earned $20,000 prize money. Now, if you’ve ever read or heard of articles about $800 hammers, you probably realize space ain’t cheap! Team Miles reinvested the entire prize into development and design tools, mandatory insurance, and radiation testing for key electronics.
The cash prize was helpful. The real prize, however, was six weeks of review with NASA’s SLS Safety Team to prepare our safety presentation. This detailed and personalized review and feedback provided a deep level of insight into the requirements for a berth on the SLS. We didn’t fully understand the impact of this review until months later.
The NASA SLS-EM1 (Space Launch System – Exploratory Mission 1) launch will deliver NASA’s new Orion module to space where it will then travel to the Moon. This is the launch’s primary mission. As a secondary mission, NASA is including a deployer ring capable of launching up to 14 (20x30x10 cm) Satellites (6U CubeSats). Many of these deployer slots are committed to secondary missions such as the Lunar Flashlight and the NEA Scout. Three of these slots have been reserved for the CubeQuest Challenge. Because these are not the primary mission, NASA’s first priority is to ensure that the secondary missions do absolutely nothing that may jeopardize the primary mission or the safety of the launch vehicle.
During the Meet The Competition conference, NASA made a significant rule change. The SLS Safety Team, after much consideration, decided that the Safety Review process was so important, that only the top five winners of GT1 and GT2 would be eligible for launch with SLS. Any teams not involved in safety with the SLS Safety Team by then would not have time to complete the necessary safety review. This meant that, at most, only ten teams would be eligible to fly. The original rules simply stated that the top three teams in GT4 would secure space on the launch vehicle. The number of potential competitors went from dozens to a maximum of ten.
For Team Miles, this news was huge. As the top finisher in GT1, we were already part of the ten. Our odds of securing a launch spot just increased dramatically! From a tactical standpoint, we had to make a decision, should we submit documentation for GT2 or focus our efforts on our CubeSat design to improve our readiness for the final round? We quickly decided to enter GT2. This round offered another $30,000 in prize money to the five top teams and, more importantly, could provide us with more quality time with the NASA Safety Team.
On Feb 5, 2016, Team Miles submitted 1,176 pages of technical and safety documentation to NASA for Ground Tournament 2. Ten teams participated in GT2. On March 17th, we learned we kept our top five spot earning us an additional $30k plus face time with Safety. Surprisingly, the lineup changed considerably. In GT1, there were two university teams and three private/industry teams. For GT2, we were only non-university team left standing! Here is how GT2 top five placed:
- Cornell CISLunar Explorers
- MIT KitCube
- UC San Diego SEDS Triteria
- U. Colorado CU-E3
- Team Miles
Clearly, it was time for an upset.
Universities are wonderful places. The more prestigious schools get millions of dollars in grants and research funding. They have distinguished alumni happy to contribute. They have established research and testing facilities valued at millions of dollars at their disposal. Finally, they’re academics. Faculty and research staff are paid by the university. Students are essentially free labor. These resources provide a huge advantage to university teams. It allows them to focus on the technical challenges without regard to money, facilities, or labor resources. These juggernauts of wealth and prestige are the Empire in our Universe.
By contrast, our scrappy team of citizen scientists has the pleasure of “figuring things out” and “making it work.” Although a few of our team members have private interests in the space industry, Team Miles is no one’s day job. We all participate for the joy of discovery and bragging rights. Despite these perceived limitations, Team Miles has held our own and continues to make impressive progress.
Along the way, we’ve made some key partnerships. About half of the team belongs to Tampa Hackerspace, a three-year-old community workshop founded and operated by volunteers. We have established some key partnerships to help us with resources and testing. You can see our current partners at https://team.miles-space.com/partners/. One key example has been thruster testing. We’ve had the good fortune to secure space at Georgia Tech’s Labs where they house two of the four vacuum chambers in WORLD which are suitable for testing our proprietary propulsion system. This testing costs tens of thousands of dollars per week. Thanks to our partnership with Blue Canyon, we’ve been there twice. But even our partners don’t have endlessly deep pockets. We expect that any further testing would require cash or additional sponsors.
Which leads us to, “So what are you going to do with this money?”
Of the $30,000 goal, we’ll spend about 25% to 30% on costs directly associated with the campaign. This covers the cost of funds, video production, and reward fulfillment.
$3k builds a small vacuum chamber at 10^-5 Torr and sized appropriately for our testing. We’re building a chamber with a proven design. It’s smaller and provides sufficient vacuum to properly evaluate thruster performance.
$9k will allow us to build Valve prototypes. NASA loves redundancy. We’re building a triply redundant valve stack that contains our propellant in the storage container and provides propellant as needed to each thruster. The valves will be built into a single unit to ensure their integrity and simplify installation between the tank and the thruster bodies.
This propellant is somewhat unique in the annals of space flight. We are using pure iodine pellets to fuel the craft. You’ll remember iodine (#53 on the periodic table) as a key nutrient provided with iodized salt. Iodine takes very little provocation to shed ions. Iodine is something of a floozy on the periodic table. Thanks to this freewheeling nature, it makes an excellent source of ions to form plasma in the right conditions. This plasma provides thrust for our CubeSat. Because iodine is so promiscuous with its ions, it is an exceptionally efficient oxidizer. Most materials, even stainless steel, are reactive with it. Furthermore, it sublimates at temperatures and pressures used on the craft. That means it transitions directly from a solid to a gaseous state without first becoming a liquid. This is great for us because it simplifies our thruster design but this makes storage more problematic. Remember where we mentioned its atomic number? It is such a small atom that it easily seeps past traditional seals. To properly seal the propellant tank, we need seals that are proven with iodine and can withstand six months of storage on a launch pad, the rigors and vibrations of launch and the harsh conditions of space. In fact, the entire containment system must be designed to this standard.
For this reason, we also need to build and test our tank prototype. We expect this to cost $8,000. NASA isn’t going to take our word that this system will work. We have to properly identify the risk, design a solution that eliminates or adequately mitigates the risk, and then prove our solution is effective. Thank you Safety Team for making this process crystal clear!