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LunIR (Lunar InfraRed imaging)

LunIR, formerly known as SkyFire, is a 6U CubeSat that will be deployed from the SLS on Artemis-1. LunIR is a NextSTEP partnership between NASA and Lockheed Martin. The primary payload is a miniature high temperature Mid-Wave Infra-Red (MWIR) sensor. Key technology elements of the MWIR sensor are an integrated micro-cryocooler and a high temperature nBn based 1-Megapixel focal plane. The spacecraft utilizes 3D printed components. The 6U bus assembly is designed and built as a commercial CubeSat for deep space operation. Mission data will be analyzed for extensibility and application toward NASA lunar, Mars, and deep space Strategic Knowledge Gaps. 1)

One of 13 CubeSats selected for Artemis-1, LunIR, will be deployed from the interim cryogenic propulsion stage after which it will perform a lunar flyby before fulfilling additional flight objectives. Technologies aboard LunIR’s small CubeSat platform will be demonstrated that address NASA’s Strategic Knowledge Gaps and provide commercial benefit for future Lockheed Martin missions. 2)

The 13 Artemis I CubeSats were selected through internal announcements and through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Broad Agency Announcement, which sought proposals for concept studies and technology development projects, one area of which was for deep-space CubeSats. In March 2015, LunIR, as well as Morehead State University’s Lunar IceCube, were chosen through the NextSTEP BAA for further development as potential secondary payloads on LunIR.

In addition to demonstrating NASA’s new heavy-lift capability, the inaugural flight of SLS provides a unique opportunity to deploy 13 6U-sized CubeSats into deep space to perform technology demonstrations and collect data for future human exploration missions.

LunIR Mission Overview

LunIR will demonstrate a commercial CubeSat bus operation in deep space. The very low size, weight and power (SWAP) technologies demonstrated on the LunIR mission - mid-wave infrared sensor, micro-cryocooler, deep space CubeSat relative navigation, 3-D printed components - will provide pathfinder flight demonstration for NASA and the commercial CubeSat industry.

Once deployed, Lockheed Martin’s 6U-sized small satellite, LunIR, will perform a lunar flyby taking images of the lunar surface and its environment performing observations to help addressSKGs (Strategic Knowledge Gaps) related to surface characterization, remote sensing, and site selection observations. The data collected on thermal environments will add to the body of knowledge on the composition, structure, interaction with the space environment, and interaction with solar particles and the lunar regolith – all contributing to risk reduction for potential future human missions.

After the lunar flyby and data collection is complete at the moon, LunIR will address Mars SKGs related to transit and long-duration exploration missions. SkyFire will also conduct additional CubeSat based technology demonstrations including maneuvers and operations to address multiple moon and Mars SKGs related to in-space operations that will reduce risk to future deep-space crewed and robotic missions.

Solar System and Beyond

As NASA prepares for future human exploration missions, it is critical that CubeSats and other in-space technology demonstrations advance capabilities to increase the knowledge of exploration environments and reduce the risk to crews and systems. Through its investigation of the lunar environment and advanced operational techniques, LunIR will provide key pieces of data advancing the state-of-the-art technologies and increasing operational confidence at deep-space destinations.

LunIR Spacecraft

LunIR is a6U CubeSat built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a subsidiary of Terran Orbital Corp., and Lockheed Martin to collect lunar images and gather data after piggybacking on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket Artemis 1 uncrewed moon mission. The spacecraft includes two deployable solar panels and will have a total mass of about 14 kg. 3)

LunIR’s mission is to observe the lunar surface and characterize things like material composition, thermal signatures and future potential landing sites. What that translates to at its core? Looking for water on the moon! These observations will add to humanity’s knowledge about the Moon’s composition, structure and interaction between solar particles and lunar dirt. These efforts are all in the name of reducing risk and shaping future human lunar missions.

LunIR will accomplish its mission by completing a flyby of the Moon. The spacecraft will continue then collecting data to address NASA’s knowledge gaps related to transit and long-duration exploration to Mars and beyond. It will conduct technology demonstrations and maneuvers aimed at answering questions about the feasibility of human deep space travel.

One of the beautiful things about LunIR – and other, similar small satellites – is its ability to pack a ton of technology into a small package. The shoebox-sized lunar scout, built and integrated by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. of Irvine, California (“Tyvak”) hosts a first-of-a-kind infrared sensor and novel cryocooler, both developed by Lockheed Martin.

Built at Lockheed Martin’s Optical Payload Center of Excellence in Sunnyvale, California, LunIR’s infrared sensor is unique because it can map the moon in both day and night. It can detect and image in the mid-wave IR spectrum at a much higher temperature than similar sensors. This particular light spectrum enables the measurement of both reflected sunlight and thermal emission.

The spacecraft can image at these higher temperatures without overheating thanks to a highly compact and innovative micro-cryocooler. This same technology could be applied to future missions to enable a wide range of detection on the IR spectrum for efficient cost.

Both components are extremely lightweight and designed to be compatible with Tyvak’s 6U satellite bus. The Lockheed Martin team also applied additive manufacturing techniques to further reduce overall mass of the spacecraft’s instruments – saving time and cost for the mission.


Figure 1: Photo of the deployed LunIR 6U CubeSat (image credit: Lockheed Martin)

Launch: The LunIR CubeSat will be launched as a secondary payload on the Artemis 1 SLS currently scheduled for 2022. After deployment, it will perform a lunar flyby, taking images of the surface to characterize the Moon's thermal environment. After the flyby, LunIR will conduct technology demonstrations related to maneuvering and deep-space operations related to future Mars missions.

Development status

• February 9, 2022: Kongsberg Satellite Services is providing ground network support for the Lunar Infrared Imaging (LunIR) mission with ground stations in Punta Arenas, Chile, Svalbard, Norway, and Antarctica’s Troll station. 4)

- LunIR is a CubeSat built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a subsidiary of Terran Orbital Corp., and Lockheed Martin to collect lunar images and gather data after piggybacking on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket Artemis 1 uncrewed moon mission.

- Traditionally, space agencies have communicated with lunar missions through very large satellite dish antennas. Since national space agencies and commercial firms are preparing to send spacecraft to the moon, KSAT is investing in a dedicated lunar communications network.


Figure 2: LunIR is a NASA-funded CubeSat built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems and a Lockheed Martin payload to collect images and gather data (image credit: Lockheed Martin)

- For the LunIR mission, KSAT will rely on 13-meter-diameter KSAT Max antennas rather than its smaller, KSATlite network. KSAT also is making sure the LunIR mission can schedule contact time and KSAT worked with Tyvak to make sure LunIR’s onboard radio was compatible with KSAT ground stations, KSAT CEO Rolf Skatteboe told SpaceNews by email.

- LunIR is scheduled alongside the Orion capsule in April or May, and to deploy from the SLS rocket’s Orion stage adapter. Lockheed Martin developed LunIR’s infrared sensor and cryocooler to operate day and night, mapping the lunar surface, detecting materials and identifying potential landing sites.

- Tyvak was in charge of the LunIR spacecraft, payload integration and mission assurance.

- “Small satellites like LunIR are the most cost-effective way to learn more about the moon – and what challenges and opportunities it could pose for human habitation,” Marc Bell, Terran Orbital co-founder and CEO, said in a statement.

- “Exploratory missions going to the moon and beyond are challenging, and we look forward to supporting LunIR on our network,” Arnulf Kjeldsen, KSAT executive vice president for strategy and technology, said in a statement. “We are continuously expanding our global network to meet the growing demand as more lunar missions are coming to fruition through the Artemis program and NASA´s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts.”

- KSAT also is designing a ground network for lunar data relay satellites as part of a consortium led by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. working under the European Space Agency Moonlight Initiative, an effort to provide lunar communications and navigation.

• Delivered by Lockheed Martin to NASA June 10, 2021, LunIR is among 13 small satellites that will hitch a ride along with the launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on the Artemis I mission and its massive Space Launch System rocket in 2022. The public-private partnership for this particular spacecraft represents NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), (Ref. 3).

1) ”Lunar InfraRed (imaging) (LunIR),” NASA, URL:

2) ”NASA Selects Lockheed Martin’s LunIR CubeSat for Artemis I Secondary Payload,” NASA 1 February 2016, Last updated: 31 March 2020, URL:

3) ”Setting Our Sights on the Moon with Shoebox-Sized Satellites,” Lockheed Martin News, 2021, URL:

4) Debra Werner, ”KSAT to support NASA LunIR mission,” SpaceNews, 9 February 2022, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (