Science

NASA’s tiny Lunar Flashlight probe could run into problems in deep space

NASA’s newest tiny lunar probe is battling an engine failure on its way to the moon.

A spacecraft called Lunar Flashlight was launched last month to search for water ice on the Moon. The probe was also expected to test the new “green” fuel during its four-month mission to the Moon, but its engines have experienced a problem, NASA said Thursday (January 12).

“While the small satellite is mostly operational and in communication with NASA’s Deep Space Network, the mission operations team found that three of its four engines were operating inefficiently,” NASA said in a statement. (will open in a new tab). “Based on ground testing, the team believes that the lack of performance could be caused by obstructions in the fuel lines that could restrict fuel delivery to the engines.”

Related: NASA explains Lunar Flashlight CubeSat for water hunting

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Lunar Flashlight probe to the Moon on Dec. 11, along with a Japanese rover lander built by the United Arab Emirates. NASA’s small satellite is designed to search for water ice at the Moon’s south pole, where NASA hopes to land astronauts in just a few years.

Lunar Flashlight flight controllers noticed problems with the probe’s propulsion system about three days after launch, when it became clear it was moving with reduced thrust, NASA officials said. Now, mission engineers are developing new plans for longer engine runs to complete Lunar Lantern’s journey to the Moon.

“The team plans to run the engines for a much longer time soon, hoping to remove any potential obstructions in the engine fuel line by performing trajectory correction maneuvers that will keep the small satellite on course to reach its planned orbit around the Moon,” NASA wrote. Thursday update. “In the event that the propulsion system cannot be restored to full capacity, the mission team draws up alternative plans to perform these maneuvers using the propulsion system with its current reduced thrust capabilities.”

Photo of the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft being tested before launch. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It will not be easy to restore the Lunar Lantern, which is the size of a briefcase. The spacecraft “will need to perform daily trajectory correction maneuvers starting in early February to reach lunar orbit in about four months,” NASA wrote. The spacecraft fires its engines in short pulses, each lasting a few seconds. It uses a pink fuel known as Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic, which is less toxic than the hydrazine fuel on most spacecraft.

The Lunar Flashlight mission requires the probe to enter a wide loop orbit around the Moon, which will bring it 9 miles (15 kilometers) closer to the surface at its closest point and send it as far as 43,000 miles (70,000 km) from the Moon. The moon is at its farthest point. (This orbit is similar to the one currently being tested by NASA’s CAPSTONE probe and will be used by astronaut Gateway Station in the future.)

In its orbit, Lunar Flashlight will use four infrared lasers and a new type of laser reflectometer to search for surface ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the Moon’s south pole. The spacecraft is also testing a new low-power onboard computer called Sphinx, specifically designed to provide radiation resistance in the harsh environment of space. Its new Iris radio station is also expected to test ultra-precise navigation systems for future small probes bound for other destinations in our solar system, NASA said.

Lunar Flashlight isn’t the only NASA lunar probe to have problems immediately after launch.

The CAPSTONE cubesat ran into trouble when it lost contact with Earth shortly after separating from the Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle in July. The probe also began tumbling in space after an engine burned out in September. The mission operations team, led by Colorado-based Advanced Space, was able to resolve both issues, allowing CAPSTONE to reach its final orbit in November.

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@ or follow him @tariqjmalik (will open in a new tab). Follow us @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab)facebook (will open in a new tab) and instagram (will open in a new tab).

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