NASA has abandoned a planned lunar mission for the small Lunar Flashlight cube, which aims to search for water ice in mysterious craters near the moon’s south pole.
The suitcase-sized Lunar Flashlight was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last December. It was a passenger payload on a mission whose main objective was to send the Japanese private robotic Hakuto-R ispace lander to the moon.
The moon flashlight was supposed to be pointing to the moon as well. But it ran into problems with its technically apparent propulsion system, failing to generate enough thrust to reach lunar orbit as planned.
The mission team has been stuck with the problem for nearly six months but hasn’t been able to fix it. So, today (May 12) NASA announced that it was bringing an end to its planned Lunar Flashlight mission.
“Technology demonstrations are, by their nature, higher risk, higher reward, and essential for NASA to test and learn,” Christopher Baker, executive director of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and he said in a statement (Opens in a new tab) today.
“The Lunar Flashlight has been very successful in terms of being a testbed for new systems that have not flown in space before,” Baker added. “These systems, and the lessons Lunar Flashlight taught us, will be used on future missions.”
Related: These two small spacecraft will help pave the way for astronauts to return to the moon
Among those successes are Cubesat’s Sphinx aircraft computer, a low-power, radiation-resistant variant developed by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and the probe’s upgraded radio, known as Iris, NASA officials said.
“Featuring a new accurate navigation capability, the radio could be used by future small spacecraft for rendezvous and landing on solar system objects,” NASA officials wrote in a statement today.
The mission team also successfully tested the Lunar Flashlight’s quadruple laser reflectometer, indicating that it may already have spotted water ice on the floors of craters on the moon.
“It is very disappointing for the science team, and for the entire Lunar Flashlight team, that we won’t be able to use our laser reflectometer to take measurements on the moon,” said Barbara Cohen, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said. In the same statement.
“But like all other systems, we collected a lot of in-flight performance data on the device that will be incredibly valuable for future iterations of this technology,” Cohen said.
The Lunar Flashlight’s miniature propulsion system was a new kind of technology as well, using 3D printed parts and “green” propellants. NASA officials said it appeared that the thrusters’ fuel-feeding system had become clogged with some kind of debris—metal shavings or powder, perhaps—that prevented them from firing at full power.
Expedition team members tried several tactics to clear the debris, including increasing fuel pressure to levels much higher than normal. But nothing worked in time for the probe to achieve its planned lunar orbit.
But Lunar Flashlight isn’t necessarily dead. Most of the probe’s systems are still working fine, and NASA could end up assigning it a new mission.
“After traveling beyond the moon, the Lunar Flashlight is now moving toward Earth and will fly across our planet with a close approach of about 40,000 miles (65,000 kilometers) on May 17,” agency officials wrote in today’s update. “The cubes will then continue into deep space and orbit the sun. They continue to communicate with mission operators, and NASA is studying options for the future of the spacecraft.”
Lunar Flashlight’s riding partner also failed to meet all of its mission objectives: Hakuto-R ended up crashing while attempting to land on the moon on April 25. But, like Lunar Flashlight, the Japanese lander has had a number of successes along the way. For example, it successfully reached lunar orbit, demonstrating the viability of many of the systems that ispace will use on future lunar missions.
Mike Wall is the author of “outside (Opens in a new tab)Book (Major Grand Publishers, 2018; illustration by Carl Tate), a book about the search for aliens. Follow him on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @employee (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).