Washington: The Space Launch System (SLS) -- NASA's most powerful rocket ever that will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the Moon in 2018 -- will also carry 13 tiny satellites to test innovative ideas.
These small satellite secondary payloads or "CubeSats" will carry science and technology investigations to help pave the way for future human exploration in deep space, including the journey to Mars.
SLS' first flight, referred to as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), provides the rare opportunity for these small experiments to reach deep space destinations, as most launch opportunities for CubeSats are limited to low-Earth orbit.
"The 13 CubeSats that will fly to deep space as secondary payloads aboard SLS on EM-1 showcase the intersection of science and technology, and advance our journey to Mars," said NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman in a statement.
While Near-Earth Asteroid Scout or NEA Scout will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid, take pictures and observe its position in space, "BioSentinel" CubeSat will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations in deep space.
"Lunar Flashlight" will look for ice deposits and identify locations where resources may be extracted from the lunar surface while "LunaH-Map" will map hydrogen within craters and other permanently shadowed regions throughout the moon's south pole.
"The SLS is providing an incredible opportunity to conduct science missions and test key technologies beyond low-Earth orbit," added Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA.
"This rocket has the unprecedented power to send Orion to deep space plus room to carry 13 small satellites -- payloads that will advance our knowledge about deep space with minimal cost," he informed.
NASA has also reserved three slots for payloads from international partners. Discussions to fly those three payloads are ongoing, and they will be announced at a later time.
On this first flight, SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft to a stable orbit beyond the moon to demonstrate the integrated system performance of Orion and the SLS rocket prior to the first crewed flight.
The CubeSats will be deployed following Orion separation from the upper stage and once Orion is a safe distance away.