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NASA freezes ice-hunting cubesat Moon mission for good after thruster fail

Lunar Flashlight's innovative hardware worked ... other than its engines. Let's call it a draw

NASA has given up searching for ice hidden inside craters on the surface of the Moon's South Pole - for now - after the Lunar Flashlight cubesat carrying out the mission failed to generate enough thrust to reach its intended orbit.

Launched in December, the briefcase-sized spacecraft was designed to enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, and use a laser to scan the dark nooks and crannies of the natural satellite's surface for ice. The probe quickly ran into problems when its four thrusters, which use a type of propulsion system that had not previously flown beyond Earth's orbit, malfunctioned

"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," Barbara Cohen, the mission's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "But like all the other systems, we collected a lot of in-flight performance data on the instrument that will be incredibly valuable to future iterations of this technique."

Lunar Flashlight also carried a new Sphinx flight computer – a radiation-hardened, low-power system developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Also aboard is Iris, an upgraded navigation radio to rendezvous and land on the Moon.

Christopher Baker, program executive for NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said that both components worked well during the mission. 

"Technology demonstrations are, by their nature, higher risk and high reward, and they're essential for NASA to test and learn," said Baker. "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."

The decision to end the mission came after attempts to reconfigure it failed.

NASA's boffins calculated a new orbit that could be reached using the spacecraft’s small amount of potential remaining thrust. Under that plan, the cubesat would have orbited Earth and made monthly passes of the Moon's South Pole. Had it succeeded, the plan would have seen Lunar Flashlight make fewer flybys than its original mission plan outlined, but each approach would have been closer than originally envisioned.

Sadly, Lunar Flashlight was unable to perform the orbital burns to put it on the path towards its new orbit in time.

Now that it has flown past the Moon, the cubesat is whizzing back toward Earth, and will reach about 65,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) away from our world in its closest approach on May 17. It will continue communicating with mission control and will eventually orbit the Sun. NASA said it is mulling over the spacecraft's future and considering different options. ®

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