NASA’s Lunar Flashlight operations team continues to work on remedying the CubeSat’s underperforming propulsion system. They developed a method to get one of the CubeSat’s four thrusters to deliver more thrust; however, the small spacecraft will need additional, more consistent thrust in the next few days to reach its revised target orbit.
Devised by team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Georgia Tech, and the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the new method involves trying to clear the thruster fuel lines of suspected obstructions by increasing fuel pump pressure far beyond the system’s operational limit while opening and closing the system’s valves. After some improvement with one spacecraft thruster, the team is now attempting this method on the other three thrusters. This has resulted in limited success, with the remaining thrusters inconsistently producing some increased levels of thrust.
The CubeSat is currently beyond the Moon’s orbit, more than half a million miles from Earth and looping back toward our planet. To carry out monthly flybys of the lunar South Pole to look for surface ice inside permanently shadowed craters, the team needs to nudge Lunar Flashlight into a trajectory that will allow it to arrive in the required Earth-Moon orbit. They need more reliable thrust for the next few days to achieve that goal.
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 advance this technology.
The other systems aboard Lunar Flashlight continue to perform well.
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.