NASA’s newest tiny lunar probe battles a propeller failure on its way to the moon.
The spacecraft, called Lunar flashlight, launched last month on a mission to search for water ice on the moon. The probe was also expected to test a new “green” propellant during its four-month journey to moonbut its thrusters have a problem, NASA said on Thursday (January 12).
“While smallsat is largely healthy and communicating with NASA Deep Space Networkmission operations team has discovered that three of its four thrusters are not performing,” NASA wrote in a update (opens in new tab). “Based on ground tests, the team believes the underperformance may be caused by obstructions in the fuel lines that may restrict propellant flow to the propellers.”
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Lunar Flashlight probe to the moon on December 11 with a Japanese lunar lander carrying a lunar rover built by the United Arab Emirates. NASA smallsat is designed to search for water ice at the moon’s south polewhere NASA hopes to land astronauts in just a few years.
Lunar Flashlight flight controllers noticed the probe’s propulsion system problems about three days after launch, when it became clear it was moving under reduced thrust, NASA officials said. Now, mission engineers are devising new plans to fire the thrusters further to complete the Lunar Flashlight’s journey to the Moon.
“The team plans to soon operate the thrusters for much longer durations, hoping to clear any fuel line obstructions from the thruster while performing bank correction maneuvers that will keep Smallsat on course to reach its planned lunar orbit,” NASA wrote in Thursday’s update. “If the propulsion system cannot be restored to full performance, the mission team is devising alternative plans to perform these maneuvers using the propulsion system at its current reduced thrust.”
It will be a challenging recovery for the Lunar Flashlight, which is about the size of a briefcase. The spacecraft “will need to perform daily bank correction maneuvers beginning in early February to reach lunar orbit approximately four months from now,” NASA wrote. The spacecraft fires its propellers in short pulses, each lasting a few seconds. It uses a pink fuel called Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic, which is designed to be less toxic than the hydrazine propellant on most spacecraft.
Lunar Flashlight’s mission calls for the probe to enter a wide orbit around the moon that will bring it within 9 miles (15 kilometers) of the surface at its closest point and send it out as far as 43,000 miles (70,000 km) from the moon at its furthest away. (The orbit is similar to one currently being tested by NASA CAPSTONE probe and will be used by the agency Gateway station for future astronauts.)
From orbit, the Lunar Flashlight will use four infrared lasers and a new type of laser reflectometer to search for surface ice in permanently shadowed craters on the Moon’s south pole. The spacecraft is also testing a new low-power flight computer called Sphinx that is specially designed to be radiation tolerant in the harsh environment of space. Its new Iris radio is also expected to test ultra-precise navigation systems for future small probes bound for other destinations this spring Solar systemNASA has said.
Lunar Flashlight isn’t the only NASA lunar probe to have problems right after launch.
CAPSTONE cubesat suffered its own miseries, lose contact with the earth shortly after separating from its Rocket Lab Electron booster in July. The probe also began tumbling through space after an engine burnout in September. The mission operations team, led by the Colorado-based company Advanced Space, was able to resolve both errors, allowing the CAPSTONE to reach its final orbit in November.
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