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Lunar swirls, such as the Reiner-Gamma swirl imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, are strange markings on the Moon that a conceptual CubeSat mission would study.NASA

NASA is on a mission to solve the mystery of strange swirls spotted on the moon, which a NASA statement referred to as 'tattoos'.

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The space agency will assess more than 100 unusual patterns on the lunar surface with the help of CubeSats.

Top 7 things to know about NASA's tethered CubeSat mission:

1. The CubeSats refer to a new type of satellite devised at cheaper cost and launched by India. This mission would involve two 12-unit CubeSats. Each unit measure just four inches on a side.

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This artist's drawing shows how two CubeSats, connected by a miles-long tether, would gather measurements on the moon.NASA

2. The CubeSats will be connected by a thin tether which would be 112 miles-long. It could aid the scientists to understand how the light and dark swirling patterns occur across the surface of the Moon.

3. A team was selected at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland by NASA's Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies (PSDS3) program recently, with the aim to develop a mission concept Bi-sat Observations of the Lunar Atmosphere above Swirls (BOLAS). Goddard Principal Investigator Timothy Stubbs is the lead researcher of this study.

"This is an exciting concept," said Michael Collier, a BOLAS co-investigator who has studied tether-based missions for gathering difficult-to-obtain lunar measurements since 2015. "Candidly, I think it's groundbreaking. Tethered satellites are a very natural approach for targeting lunar science."

4. The top satellite would be positioned at around 189.903 km (118 miles) above the lunar surface, while the lower satellite would fly at a height of just around 9.66 km (6 miles) over the lunar surface.

5. "The tension in the tether keeps the CubeSats in vertical alignment as they orbit. The configuration, with the center-of-mass in a quasi-stable orbit, should enable the lower CubeSat to fly for long durations at low altitudes," Stubbs stated.

6. Excessive amounts of fuels would be needed by the CubeSats at a comparable low-altitude mission for maintaining its orbit without a tether system. According to Collier, tethering is an innovative approach to the technical challenge of low-altitude measurements using minimal propellant for planetary objects that lack an atmosphere. He also revealed that CubeSat couldn't carry enough fuel required for the periodic station-keeping manoeuvres.

7. Until scientists launch a mission capable of carrying out close-to-the-ground global measurements, a definitive answer isn't likely, Collier said. However, he believes the two-satellite BOLAS mission could provide the data the scientific community needs.

"This could be a paradigm shift," Collier said. "All indications show that this mission can be done with existing technology."