NASA’s Lunar Flashlight satellite will not reach its planned orbit

This week there was good news for one NASA lunar mission as the CAPSTONE satellite recovered from a communications problem, but bad news for another. The Lunar Flashlight mission, designed to search for water ice at the moon’s south pole, will no longer be able to reach the planned orbit.

This illustration shows NASA’s lunar flashlight performing a course correction maneuver with the Moon and Earth in the background. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The lunar flashlight, a small satellite called CubeSat, was launched last December but quickly ran into trouble on its journey. Three of its four engines malfunctioned, making it difficult for the satellite to perform the maneuvers necessary to enter its intended lunar orbit.

NASA explained in an update that the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Georgia Tech attempted to fix the problem by spinning the spacecraft and firing the only working propellant into what they hoped would be. 10-minute bursts, they would nudge the spacecraft in the required direction. But after several attempts, this motor also stopped working.

The spacecraft will almost certainly not reach its predicted near-straight-line halo orbit now. However, all is not lost. The team is working on a plan to salvage as much of the mission as possible by placing the satellite in high Earth orbit, which would allow it to fly past the moon and give it the opportunity to collect data from the moon’s south pole.

The satellite has limited fuel after trying to return it to its original orbit, but the team will try to begin maneuvers this week that could allow it to make its first scientific flight above the Moon in June.

NASA was philosophical in announcing the issue, pointing out that Lunar Flashlight was a technology demonstration with a new, miniaturized propulsion system — meaning it was essentially a test of a new concept. “Technology demonstrations are high-risk, high-reward ventures aimed at pushing the frontiers of space technology,” the agency wrote in the announcement. “Lessons learned from these challenges will help inform future missions that continue to advance this technology.”

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