Lake County News, Calif. – Space News: NASA’s Lunar Lantern ready to search for lunar water ice

Earlier this year, NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission underwent testing to be ready for launch in November 2022. The small solar-powered satellite is shown here with its four solar arrays deployed in a Georgia Tech clean room. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The small satellite mission, which is set for a November launch, will use lasers to search for water ice inside the darkest craters on the moon’s south pole.

Water ice (broken rock and dust) is known to exist beneath the lunar regolith, but scientists do not yet understand whether surface ice frost covers the floors inside these cold craters.

To find out, NASA is sending the Lunar Flashlight, a tiny satellite (or SmallSat) no bigger than a briefcase.

It will fly low over the moon’s south pole and use lasers to shine light on these dark craters – much like a prospector looking for hidden treasure by shining a flashlight into a cave. The mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-November.

“This launch will put the satellite on a trajectory that will take about three months to reach its science orbit,” said John Baker, mission project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Then the Lunar Flashlight will try to find water ice on the surface of the moon in places no one else has been able to look.

Fuel efficient orbits

After launch, the mission navigators will guide the spacecraft around the moon. It will then be slowly pulled back by gravity from Earth and the Sun before settling into a wide, looping, science-gathering orbit.

This nearly rectilinear halo orbit takes it 42,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the Moon at its farthest point, and at its closest approach the satellite will graze the surface of the Moon, coming within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of the Moon. lunar south pole.

Small satellites carry a limited amount of propellant, so fuel-intensive orbits are not possible. A nearly rectilinear halo orbit requires much less fuel than traditional orbits, and Lunar Flashlight will be only the second NASA mission to use this type of trajectory. The first is NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, which will arrive in orbit on Nov. 13 and make the closest flyby of the moon’s north pole.

“The reason for this orbit is to be able to get close enough for Lunar Flashlight to shine its lasers and get a good return from the surface, but also have a stable orbit that uses little fuel,” said Barbara Cohen, Lunar Flashlight. principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

As a technology demonstration, the Lunar Flashlight will be the first interplanetary spacecraft to use a new type of “green” propellant that is safer to transport and store than commonly used propellants in space, such as hydrazine.

Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and tested on a previous NASA technology demonstration mission, this new propellant burns through a catalyst rather than requiring a separate oxidizer. That’s why it’s called a monopropellant.

The satellite’s propulsion system was developed and built by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with integration support from the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta.

Lunar Flashlight will also be the first mission to use a four-laser reflectometer to search for water ice on the Moon. The reflectometer works by using near-infrared wavelengths that are easily absorbed by water to identify ice on the surface.

If the lasers hit bare rock, their light would bounce back to the spacecraft, signaling a lack of ice. But if the light is absorbed, it would mean that these dark pockets actually contain ice. The greater the absorption, the more ice there can be on the surface.

This image shows the NASA Lunar Lantern above the Moon. The SmallSat mission will have a very extended orbit and come within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of the moon’s south pole to search for water ice in the moon’s darkest craters. Credit: NASA.

Lunar water cycle

Water molecules are thought to originate from cometary and asteroid material impacting the lunar surface and from the interaction of the solar wind with the lunar regolith. Over time, the molecules could have accumulated as a layer of ice inside the “cold traps”.

“For the first time, we will make definitive measurements of surface water ice in permanently shaded regions,” Cohen said. “We will be able to compare the Lunar Flashlight observations with other lunar missions to understand how extensive this water is and whether future explorers could use it as a resource.”

Cohen and her science team hope that the data Lunar Flashlight collects can be used to understand how volatile molecules like water cycle from place to place and where they can accumulate to form a layer of ice in these cold traps.

“This is an exciting time for lunar exploration. The launch of Lunar Flashlight, along with the many small satellite missions aboard Artemis I, can lay the groundwork for scientific discovery as well as support future missions to the lunar surface,” said Roger Hunter, Program Manager for Small Spacecraft Technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center. in California’s Silicon Valley.

More about the mission

In October, the Lunar Flashlight was powered up at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida between November 9 and 15 with the Japanese Hakuto-R lander. and the Rashid 1 rover from the United Arab Emirates. The mission worked with Maverick Space Systems to provide launch integration services.

NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program funded component development by small businesses, including Plasma Processes Inc. (Rubicon) for nozzle development, Flight Works for pump development and Beehive Aerospace (formerly Volunteer Aerospace) for specific 3D printed components. The Air Force Research Laboratory also participated financially in the development of the Lunar Flashlight propulsion system.

Lunar Flashlight will be operated by Georgia Tech, including graduate and undergraduate students. The mission is funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program within NASA’s Space Technology Directorate.

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