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Water-hunting NASA cubesat won't reach Moon after total thruster fail

ASCENT propulsion system just didn't work

A tiny NASA cubesat, sent to hunt for signs of water ice on the Moon, will not reach lunar orbit after all four thrusters in a miniaturized propulsion system malfunctioned en route.

The Lunar Flashlight satellite was launched on 11 December with a planned four-month journey to look for hidden ice around the lunar South Pole. The goal was to reach a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, and scan crevices on its surface with infrared lasers. 

But NASA has been forced to change the mission due to a failure in its propulsion system. Three of its four thrusters started sputtering shortly after launch, but mission control decided to power on with one functioning engine. The cubesat was spun at a rate of six degrees per second for stability while its remaining thruster fired to try and make the Moon shot.

Unfortunately, the last thruster gave out too, and the cubesat doesn't have enough power to reach lunar orbit. Scientists from NASA and the Georgia Institute of Technology are now revising the mission to try and salvage some research. Instead of getting it to NRHO, it will be put into a distant orbit around the Earth where it will be able to study the Moon as it flies past occasionally.

"Because achieving an optimal near-rectilinear halo orbit appears unlikely, the Lunar Flashlight team decided to attempt lunar flybys using any remaining thrust the propulsion system can deliver," NASA confirmed this week. "This new attempt is designed to get the CubeSat into high Earth orbit, which includes periodic flybys of the lunar South Pole once a month to collect data."

The team reckons the Lunar Flashlight will be able to start collecting data after it makes its first pass in June. All the other instruments and hardware systems onboard the Lunar Flashlight are unaffected and are working fine, NASA reports. 

It's not clear what caused the cubesat's propulsion system to fail. Initial tests suggest fuel lines directing propellant to its thrusters may be blocked. The spacecraft was kitted out with a miniature propellant system never tested before running on a relatively new type of propellant dubbed Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic (ASCENT) by the US Air Force, that is safer to transport than the more commonly used hydrazine, and is much more efficient.

"While Lunar Flashlight faces significant challenges in its goal of getting to the Moon, testing its new propulsion system in space fulfills one of the mission's objectives and will support future technology development…Technology demonstrations are high-risk, high-reward endeavors intended to push the frontiers of space technology. The lessons learned from these challenges will help to inform future missions that further advance this technology," NASA said in a statement. ®

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