NASA's Lunar Flashlight mission failed to reach the Moon

"Technology demonstrations are, by their nature, higher risk and high reward."
Chris Young
An artist's impression of NASA's Lunar Flashlight.
An artist's impression of NASA's Lunar Flashlight.

NASA / JPL-Caltech 

NASA has officially called an end to its lunar water-hunting CubeSat mission.

The Lunar Flashlight mission experienced propulsion problems with the briefcase-sized spacecraft shortly after it launched on December 11, 2022.

Last week, NASA announced the Lunar Flashlight mission was over "because the CubeSat cannot complete maneuvers to stay in the Earth-Moon system."

Though it did demonstrate some compelling technology, it was not able to perform its main mission goal of using lasers to detect surface ice in the lunar south pole.

NASA's Lunar Flashlight mission is over

In a statement, NASA's principal investigator for Lunar Flashlight, Barbara Cohen, added that "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."

The Lunar Flashlight mission was designed to shine infrared lasers on some of the Moon's permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole. By doing so, it hoped to detect ice water reservoirs ahead of NASA's plans to establish a permanent presence on the Moon.

Shortly after launch, however, NASA announced that three of the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft's four thrusters were underperforming due to obstructed fuel lines that may have been caused by debris buildup.

NASA initially aimed to use the one functioning thruster to insert Lunar Flashlight into a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. Unfortunately, that thruster also started to experience problems. The space agency then decided it would aim to get the spacecraft into a high Earth orbit. By doing this, it would be able to scan the lunar south pole once per month, as opposed to the one scan per week that would have been possible from lunar orbit.

NASA aimed for "higher risk and higher reward"

Earlier this month, NASA announced that its efforts to improve the situation had provided a glimmer of hope; one thruster was showing a slight improvement in performance after the agency tried to clear the obstructions.

Sadly, though, that appears to have been a false dawn as NASA has now officially announced that the Lunar Flashlight mission is over as the spacecraft failed to generate the required thrust to reach high Earth orbit.

Part of the reason behind Lunar Flashlight's failure is that the CubeSat was also testing a new propulsion technology in space, NASA explained in its statement. Lunar Flashlight features a miniaturized propulsion system, using green fuel, with a 3D-printed fuel feed system that may have been responsible for the debris buildup.

"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, explained. "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."

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board