NASA Mission Fails to Reach Orbit Around the Moon’s South Pole

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NASA is finally giving up on its tiny water-hunting cubesat, officially calling it quits on the Lunar Flashlight mission after failing to fix its propulsion issues.

On Friday, the space agency announced the end of its Lunar Flashlight mission “because the CubeSat cannot complete maneuvers to stay in the Earth-Moon system,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in a statement. “It’s disappointing for the science team, and for the whole Lunar Flashlight team, that we won’t be able to use our laser reflectometer to make measurements at the Moon,” Barbara Cohen, the mission’s principal investigator, said in the statement.

The briefcase-sized satellite launched in December 2022 on a mission to shine infrared light on some of the Moon’s permanently shadowed areas, scanning the lunar South Pole for ice water reservoirs. Shortly after launch, however, the cubesat began experiencing problems with its propulsion system.

Three of the Lunar Flashlight’s four thrusters were underperforming due to obstructed fuel lines, likely due to debris buildup. The cubesat was supposed to enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon using its sole functioning thruster, but even that one began experiencing its own issues. Instead, NASA hatched a plan to place the probe in a high Earth orbit, allowing it to scan the Moon’s south polar regions once per month, as opposed to once per week with its original orbit.

For the past five months, mission teams have been trying to resolve Lunar Flashlight’s propulsion issues to get it on its modified track. NASA engineers have been trying to clear suspected obstructions in the thruster fuel lines, enabling the spacecraft to produce adequate thrust for carrying out monthly flybys of the Moon’s south polar region.

There was a brief glimmer of hope earlier this month, with one of the thrusters showing some improvement. Ultimately, however, the cubesat failed to generate enough thrust to get into lunar orbit.

Lunar Flashlight’s miniaturized propulsion system was the first of its kind to be flown beyond Earth’s orbit as a demonstration of the new technology. “Technology demonstrations are, by their nature, higher risk and high reward, and they’re essential for NASA to test and learn,” Christopher Baker, program executive at NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in the statement. “Lunar Flashlight was highly successful from the standpoint of being a testbed for new systems that had never flown in space before. Those systems, and the lessons Lunar Flashlight taught us, will be used for future missions.”

In that sense, the mission wasn’t a complete failure, although it is still disappointing that the cubesat couldn’t shine its infrared flashlight on the Moon’s possible hidden reservoirs of ice water.

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