Team Troubleshoots Propulsion for NASA’s Lunar Flashlight

Teams are continuing work to place NASA’s Lunar Flashlight CubeSat in an orbit that would allow flights over the Moon’s South Pole. The opportunity to place Lunar Flashlight in such an orbit extends through the end of April.

Shortly after launch on Dec. 11, 2022, the operations team for NASA’s Lunar Flashlight determined that three of the four CubeSat’s thrusters were underperforming. This cast doubt on whether the mission could complete its stretch science goal of detecting surface ice at the Moon’s South Pole. After analyzing the situation, team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Georgia Tech arrived at a creative maneuvering technique that would use the one fully-functioning thruster to get into planned orbit. But when attempting the modified maneuvers in January, that thruster also experienced a rapid loss in performance and the team determined that Lunar Flashlight would likely be unable to reach its planned near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.

After further troubleshooting, the operations team has been working on ways to restore partial operation of one or more thrusters to keep the spacecraft within the Earth-Moon system. They have had some success but continue to try new things to clear the suspected obstructions in the thruster fuel lines. They have until the end of April to generate the required thrust to preserve the opportunity to allow for monthly flybys of the lunar South Pole.

The other systems aboard Lunar Flashlight continue to perform well and the mission has successfully completed all of its technology objectives, paving the way for future low-cost planetary exploration.

The mission’s miniaturized propulsion system is a technology demonstration that has never been flown in space before. 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.

“Though we hoped the propulsion system would perform perfectly, encountering and responding to these issues is an expected part of a technology demonstration mission like this,” said Justin Treptow, deputy program executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Flight testing, evaluating, and troubleshooting this system all help fulfill the mission’s primary objective to explore the actual in-space performance of this novel propulsion system.”

Lunar Flashlight is funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.