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Lightweight infrared camera technology to help uncover what's unknown about our moon

A set of infrared cameras could just make another moon landing possible, and after that, maybe even Mars.

This week, NASA signed a contract with Lockheed Martin allowing a 2018 Orion Exploration Mission to include a system of infrared cameras known as SkyFire. Those cameras are expected to obtain more detailed images of the moon’s surface, scouting out potential areas for future human exploration. If the launch is successful, similar technology could be used to assess the possibility of sending astronauts to Mars.

The agreement lets Lockheed Martin put SkyFire on NASA’s Orion EM-1 launch, in exchange for data from the cameras. According to Lockheed Martin’s SkyFire project manager, John Ringelberg, the lunar flyby will help fill in lunar knowledge gaps as well as explore the potential for using the technology for further space exploration.

The SkyFire is a six-unit CubeSat, or a miniature satellite made up of several smaller units. CubeSats allow for smaller auxiliary projects to be completed alongside a larger mission.

Cameras in space certainly aren’t a new concept, but the technology under development by Lockheed Martin is lighter. Cutting out weight means the satellite could orbit closer to the moon than current technology allows, since a lighter load would make it easier to maneuver.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” James Russell, a Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator, said in a press release. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

According to Lockheed Martin, the moon mission serves as a sort of trial run for the SkyFire system. If the cameras are successful shooting the moon, they could be used to photograph Mars. And the IR photos aren’t your average space photos – the system could potentially reveal details like ideal landing sites and the safest areas for human exploration.

“For a small CubeSat, SkyFire has a chance to make a big impact on future planetary space missions,” Russell said. “With less mass and better instruments, we can get closer, explore deeper, and learn more about the far reaches of our solar system.”

SkyFire is one of 13 other CubeSats expected to hitch a ride on the EM-1 sometime in 2018.