NASA’s Lunar Flashlight – a small spacecraft for measuring water ice in dark craters near the moon’s poles – will now launch as a payload superimposed on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the end of this year after delays caused him to miss a ride on the agency’s Artemis 1 mission.
Barbara Cohen, principal investigator of Lunar Flashlight at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, confirmed the mission’s new launch arrangement last month at the Lunar Surface Science Workshop, a meeting of researchers planning scientific investigations for future expeditions. lunar.
Lunar Flashlight will go to space with a commercial lunar lander built by Intuitive Machines, a private Houston-based company that NASA has contracted for at least three robotic lunar landing missions through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. , from the agency.
Intuitive Machines’ first CLPS mission, known as IM-1, will launch from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket. A recent update to a public launch schedule on the NASA website shows that the IM-1 mission is scheduled to lift off on December 22 and then land on the moon several weeks later, using Intuitive Machines’ methane-powered Nova-C lander to deliver NASA experiments on the lunar surface.
IM-1 was originally scheduled to launch in 2021 when NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract for the mission in 2019. Intuitive Machines contracted SpaceX to launch the IM-1 mission.
The Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, weighing a total of about 30 pounds (14 kilograms) at launch, will take advantage of the excess payload capacity of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the IM-1 lunar lander.
The Lunar Flashlight was previously tasked with launching the first flight of NASA’s massive Space Launch System lunar rocket. NASA has selected 13 CubeSat missions, including Lunar Flashlight, to participate in the first SLS flight, known as Artemis 1.
Lunar Flashlight was one of three CubeSat missions that weren’t ready in time to be put on the SLS lunar rocket before it was shut down for the Artemis 1 test launch.
The Lunar Flashlight mission, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is designed to orbit the moon and shine infrared lasers into permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. An instrument on Lunar Flashlight will measure light reflected from the lunar surface, revealing the composition and amount of water ice and other molecules hidden on dark crater floors.
A NASA spokesperson said last year that problems with the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft’s original propulsion system forced officials to switch to an alternate design. This slowed mission development and, together with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevented the spacecraft from being ready to be integrated into the Artemis 1 rocket.
The other two CubeSat projects that missed the deadline for the Artemis 1 were the Cislunar Explorers mission, made up of a pair of CubeSats from Cornell University, and the CU-E3 mission from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Neither got a new launch opportunity.
The two Cislunar Explorers nanosatellites are designed to orbit the Moon and test a water-based propulsion system and optical navigation technology.
Curran Muhlberger, the mission’s educational adviser at Cornell, said last year that Cislunar Explorers missed their turn on Artemis 1 due to technology development issues and delays caused by the pandemic. Although the Cornell team was able to assemble and verify the fit of the spacecraft, Muhlberger said she was not confident enough in the reliability of the system to feel comfortable enough to proceed with the launch on Artemis. 1.
In May, Muhlberger said the team had “made good progress” since last year on an integrated simulation of the mission’s propulsion and navigation technologies. “We wait to actively seek a new launch vendor until we have completed rigorous validation of our capabilities,” he said.
Scott Palo, Principal Investigator for CU-E3 mission to CU Boulder, said his project suffered multiple flight hardware failures during testing. “Given our limited resources, we have not yet identified a feasible path.”
The CU-E3 small satellite was to be launched on Artemis 1 and head into deep space, reaching a distance of more than 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Earth to test a miniature planar antenna for communications in the deep space.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.