NASA's Lunar Thermal Mapper to find hotspots of lunar water

In 2024, the search for water-rich areas on the Moon is likely to gain pace.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Lunar outpost on the Moon
Lunar outpost on the Moon


The Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM) has been added to NASA's Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft's array of high-tech science equipment. 

This instrument will be used to investigate the characteristics and distribution of water on the lunar surface.

This small spacecraft will serve as a precursor to the highly-anticipated human landings of the Artemis program. This mission will return a wealth of data on the particular water hotspots on the Moon, allowing NASA to develop precise maps to guide future robotic and human explorers. 

NASA's Lunar Thermal Mapper to find hotspots of lunar water
NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer

“The Lunar Trailblazer mission will improve our understanding of our natural satellite and how we could harness its resources to support exploration in the future. Backing missions and capabilities that will drive opportunities for humanity to venture deeper into space is one of our priorities, so it’s exciting to see the LTM instrument ready for launch,” said Libby Jackson, Head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, in an official release.

The instrument will collect temperature data

Engineers from the University of Oxford in England created LTM with funding from the UK Space Agency. In addition to LTM, another research instrument aboard the spacecraft is NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3).

The LTM instrument was specifically developed to acquire temperature data to investigate the lunar surface's thermal characteristics and the composition of silicate rocks and soils. 

While the HVM3 imaging spectrometer will be used to identify and map water's abundance and locations.

The two instruments will examine the same areas simultaneously from the orbit. “When Lunar Trailblazer arrives in orbit around the Moon, it will use HVM3 to map the spectral fingerprints – or wavelengths of reflected sunlight – of the different forms of water over the lunar landscape,” explained the release. 

Subsequently, LTM will scan those already mapped regions to create a detailed map that will enable scientists to deduce the temperature of the lunar surface. 

This information might be extremely useful in determining whether the amount of water at a specific site fluctuates at different times of the day.

“LTM precisely maps the surface temperature of the Moon while the HVM3 instrument looks for the spectral signature of water molecules,” said Neil Bowles, instrument scientist for LTM at the University of Oxford. “Combining the measurements from both instruments allows us to understand how surface temperature affects water, improving our knowledge of the presence and distribution of these molecules on the Moon.”

This knowledge might be helpful to future explorers in myriad ways, including extracting and purifying water for drinking purposes and converting it into fuel and breathing oxygen.

Lunar Trailblazer mission

The Lunar Trailblazer weighs roughly 440 pounds (200 kilograms) with a height of 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) wide after deploying solar panels.  

The spacecraft is being finalized and tested at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. 

This project was chosen by NASA's SIMPLEx (Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration) program in 2019, and it will serve as a secondary payload on the second Intuitive Machines robotic lunar lander mission, IM-2. This mission is most likely to launch in early 2024.

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