NASA’s Lunar Flashlight — a small spacecraft to measure water ice in dark craters near the moon’s poles — will now launch late this year as a piggyback payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket after delays prevented it from taking a ride. on the agency’s Artemis 1 mission.
Barbara Cohen, principal investigator for Lunar Flashlight at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, confirmed the new launch arrangement for the mission last month at the Lunar Surface Science Workshop, a gathering of researchers planning scientific research for future lunar expeditions.
Lunar Flashlight will travel into space with a commercial lunar lander built by Intuitive Machines, a private company based in Houston that NASA has contracted for at least three robotic lunar landing missions through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program.
Intuitive Machines’ first CLPS mission, known as IM-1, launches from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket. A recent update to a public launch schedule on NASA’s website shows that the IM-1 mission is scheduled to take off on December 22 and then land on the moon several weeks later, using the methane-powered Nova rocket. C-lander from Intuitive Machines to deliver NASA experiments to the lunar surface.
IM-1 was originally scheduled for 2021 when NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract for the mission in 2019. Intuitive Machines signed a contract with SpaceX to launch the IM-1 mission.
The Lunar Flashlight spacecraft, with a gross weight of about 30 pounds (14 kilograms) at launch, will take advantage of the excess payload of the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the IM-1 lunar lander.
Lunar Flashlight was previously assigned to launch on the maiden flight of NASA’s massive Space Launch System moon rocket. NASA selected 13 CubeSat missions, including Lunar Flashlight, to ride on the first SLS flight, known as Artemis 1.
Lunar Flashlight was one of three CubeSat missions that failed to complete in time to be integrated into the SLS moon rocket before shutting 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 the 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 original propulsion system of the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft forced managers to switch to an alternative design. That slowed the mission’s development, and combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevented the spacecraft from being ready for integration with the Artemis 1 rocket.
The two other 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 of the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Neither has secured 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 faculty advisor for the mission at Cornell, said last year that Cislunar Explorers missed its ride on Artemis 1 due to technological development issues and delays caused by the pandemic. While Cornell’s team was able to assemble and check the spacecraft, Muhlberger said they were 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 has “made good progress” since last year with an integrated simulation of the mission’s propulsion and navigation technologies. “We are waiting to actively look for a new launch provider until we complete a thorough validation of our capabilities,” he said.
Scott Palo, CU-E . Principal Investigator3 mission at CU Boulder, said his project encountered multiple flight hardware errors during testing. “Given our limited resources, we have not yet identified a viable way forward.”
The CU-E3 small satellite was intended to launch on Artemis 1 and go into deep space, at a distance of more than 4 million kilometers from Earth to test a miniature planar antenna for deep space communications.
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