NASA speeds up Lunar Trailblazer launch

WASHINGTON — NASA has found a new ride for a small lunar orbiter mission that will allow the spacecraft to skip a two-year wait for launch.

In a June 21 presentation to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said the Lunar Trailblazer mission will now launch as a secondary payload during the second Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, called IM-2 and part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program (CLPS). This mission will be launched in about a year, she said.

Lunar Trailblazer had previously manifested to be launched as one of several carpool payloads for NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than early 2025. This timeline was driven by IMAP development itself, with Lunar Trailblazer expected to be completed in early 2023.

“We removed Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP manifesto so it can fly sooner,” Glaze said. She did not specify the process by which NASA decided to move Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP launch to IM-2, but later said that the agency’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program “decided to hold taking into account this additional cost” of launching on IM-2. rather than staying on IMAP.

“Our Lunar Trailblazer project is pleased that NASA has scheduled a Lunar Trailblazer launch in 2023 to provide Lunar Trailblazer’s high-resolution water ice maps to the scientific and exploration communities to understand the lunar water cycle. and to inform future Earth missions,” Bethany Ehlmann, the Caltech professor who is the Lunar Trailblazer principal investigator, told SpaceNews.

The lunar science community had pushed NASA to find an earlier route for Lunar Trailblazer once it became clear the mission would be ready to launch well before IMAP. Glaze said in early 2021 that the agency was looking for other opportunities to launch the mission, but would keep the mission on IMAP until it could find one.

Lunar Trailblazer is equipped with a spectrometer and a thermal mapper to study water distribution on the moon, information that could support future robotic and human missions. Ehlmann said the spacecraft passed its systems integration exam in May and is expected to be completed in early 2023.

The mission was one of three missions selected by NASA in 2019 under its SIMPLEx (Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration) program of small planetary science missions, with cost caps of $55 million and the use carpool launch opportunities. All three encountered issues with their launches.

Another SIMPLEx mission, Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), was originally scheduled to launch with NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere with the solar wind. However, NASA pulled EscaPADE from this mission after NASA selected a Falcon Heavy to launch Psyche, altering its trajectory so that it could no longer be dropped on Mars during a flyby. A redesigned EscaPADE is now moving forward but has not yet been assigned to a launch.

Janus, a mission featuring small twin spacecraft that would study binary asteroids, is also set to launch with Psyche carpooling. However, a delay in Psyche’s launch from early August to September 20 at the earliest means that Janus will no longer be able to use its original trajectory for flybys of two binary asteroids.

At the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Joan Salute, program manager for NASA’s planetary science division, said the Janus mission team was still studying potential alternate targets for the spacecraft if it embarked on the new window. “They’re dedicated to getting as much science as possible, every time they go,” she said.

These problems prompted discussions at the committee meeting on ways to improve the possibilities of launching small missions such as those of the SIMPLEx program. Glaze noted that these missions are categorized by the agency as “Class D,” which accept a higher degree of risk and must fit within a cost cap which, in turn, drives the use of carpools.

NASA is, however, looking at ways to improve the carpooling process for such missions, including establishing a carpooling office within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to coordinate such opportunities.

NASA is also exploring low-cost, dedicated launch options for small science missions through its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which awarded contracts to 12 companies in January, making them eligible to compete for future task orders. “We haven’t made any specific plans to use that,” Salute said of VADR, “but it’s another avenue that’s opening up.”

Lunar Trailblazer won’t be the first NASA mission to hitch a ride on a CLPS launch. Lunar Flashlight is a cubesat originally slated for launch on the Space Launch System’s first mission, Artemis 1. However, problems with its propulsion system prevented it from being delivered in time last summer for integration. to the rocket.

At a lunar science workshop in May, Barbara Cohen, lunar flashlight scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, said the spacecraft should now be launched as a secondary payload on the lander mission. Lunar IM-1 by Intuitive Machines, scheduled for release no sooner. only at the end of this year.

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