Lunar Flashlight’s journey to discover water ice on the Moon hasn’t been easy. NASA had to re-evaluate its original orbital plan on account of the probe encountering thruster performance issues and is now planning to move it to a high Earth orbit, from where the probe will only be able to scan the Moon once a month.
Shortly after its launch in December 2022, Lunar Flashlight began experiencing issues with its thrusters due to obstructed fuel lines, which meant the probe would struggle to enter its planned near-rectilinear halo orbit. NASA first attempted to use Lunar Flashlight’s lone unobstructed thruster to guide the spacecraft to its target orbit, but the remaining thruster encountered its own performance issues.
Now, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its project partners at Georgia Tech are using Lunar Flashlight’s remaining thrust capability to push the satellite into a high Earth orbit. From there, the probe will only be able to scan the Moon’s south pole for water ice once a month instead of once a week.
“The NASA JPL and Georgia Tech team is developing a new plan to get to the Moon. Because achieving an optimal near-rectilinear halo orbit appears unlikely, the Lunar Flashlight team decided to attempt lunar flybys using any remaining thrust the propulsion system can deliver,” NASA Small Satellite Missions wrote in a statement. “This new attempt is designed to get the CubeSat into high Earth orbit, which includes periodic flybys of the lunar South Pole once a month to collect data.”
Lunar Flashlight is a briefcase-sized satellite fitted with an instrument called a four-laser reflectometer. With this device, the probe will use lasers to scan the Moon’s surface in near-infrared wavelength in an attempt to find water ice hidden in the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions. Infrared wavelengths are absorbed by water, so data collected by Lunar Flashlight will be able to delineate water ice from lunar rocks and soil. The method could allow NASA to not only find the reservoirs but potentially figure out how large they are, since more absorption could indicate more water.
NASA will begin the maneuver to high Earth orbit today, and if all goes well, Lunar Flashlight’s first pass of the Moon’s south pole will occur in June.
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