Monday, December 12, 2022

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight Mission Launched to Detect Water Ice | JPL

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight Mission Launched to Detect Water Ice | JPL

This illustration shows NASA’s Lunar Flashlight, with its four solar arrays deployed, shortly after launch. The small satellite, or SmallSat, will take about three months to reach its science orbit to seek out surface water ice in the darkest craters of the Moon’s South Pole. 

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight SmallSat has communicated with mission controllers and confirmed it is healthy after launching Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, at 2:38 a.m. EST (Saturday, Dec. 10, at 11:38 p.m. PST) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. About 53 minutes after launch, the small satellite, or SmallSat, was released from its dispenser to begin a four-month journey to the Moon to seek out surface water ice in permanently shadowed craters at the lunar South Pole.

To get close to the Moon’s surface, the SmallSat will employ what’s called a near-rectilinear halo orbit—designed for energy efficiency—that will take it within just 9 miles (15 kilometers) over the lunar South Pole and 43,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) away at its farthest point. Only one other spacecraft has employed this type of orbit: NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission.

Lunar Ice Science

Lunar Flashlight will use a reflectometer equipped with four lasers that emit near-infrared light in wavelengths readily absorbed by surface water ice. This is the first time that multiple colored lasers will be used to seek out ice inside these dark regions on the Moon, which haven’t seen sunlight in billions of years. Should the lasers hit bare rock or regolith (broken rock and dust), the light will reflect back to the spacecraft. However, if the target absorbs the light, that would indicate the presence of water ice. The greater the absorption, the more ice there may be.

The science data collected by the mission will be compared with observations made by other lunar missions to help reveal the distribution of surface water ice on the Moon for potential use by future astronauts.

Lunar Flashlight will use a new kind of “green” propellant that is safer to transport and store than the commonly used in-space propellants such as hydrazine. In fact, the SmallSat will be the first interplanetary spacecraft to use this propellant, and one of the mission’s primary goals is to demonstrate this technology for future use. The propellant was successfully tested on a previous NASA technology demonstration mission in Earth orbit.

More About the Mission

Lunar Flashlight launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as a rideshare with ispace’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1. Lunar Flashlight is managed for NASA by JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California. Barbara Cohen, the mission’s principal investigator, is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Lunar Flashlight will be operated by Georgia Tech, including graduate and undergraduate students. The Lunar Flashlight science team is distributed across multiple institutions, including Goddard, the University of California, Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the University of Colorado.

Credit: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech
Release Date: Dec. 11, 2022

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