Giant interplanetary probes are getting some pint-sized competition in the form of CubeSats that significantly reduce the cost of space research, and even major players are embracing the downsizing trend. Lockheed Martin has signed a contract with NASA to develop and deploy SkyFire, a six-unit CubeSat designed to shed more light on the Moon's surface.

Weighing only 14 kg (31 lb) and measuring 10 × 20 × 30 cm (4 x 8 x 12 in), the miniature satellite carries a new infrared camera to capture back high-definition infrared images of specific lunar features, such as solar illumination areas. SkyFire is being developed under NASA's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program and will be one of a dozen CubeSats that will ride along with Orion when the Space Launch System Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) takes off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2018.

Under the contract, Lockheed will develop SkyFire using a team of early-career engineers in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, and NASA will monitor images and telemetry data returned from the Moon as the satellite makes a flyby orbit.

Lockheed says that the lunar mission is not the final objective for SkyFire, but more of a testing ground for its technology. The hope is that if the infrared system on the CubeSat works out, it will one day be use to reconnoiter other planets and moons in the Solar System in anticipation of manned missions by analyzing the soil, scouting out landing sites, and seeking areas for establishing outposts.

"SkyFire's lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration," says John Ringelberg, Lockheed Martin's SkyFire project manager. "Partnering with NASA for another element of the Orion and Space Launch System EM-1 flight is very exciting."