NASA Continues Lunar Trailblazer Mission

NASA announced Wednesday that its Lunar Trailblazer mission is approved to go forward, targeting a launch in mid-2023. NASA confirmed Lunar Trailblazer in 2020 as part of the agency’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program to provide an understanding of the form, abundance, and distribution of water on the Moon, as well as the lunar water cycle.

The agency evaluated the Lunar Trailblazer mission after cost overruns were reported by the project, which is led by Principal Investigator Dr. Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The overruns were communicated by Lockheed Martin, the flight system integrator. SIMPLEx projects have a higher risk posture and lighter oversight and management requirements to maintain a lower overall mission cost; however, the integrator found that mission success required additional engineering and design efforts that exceeded the original estimate and resulted in an overrun.

Since that notification, the project partners have worked to fully understand the sources and overall impact of the cost overrun, and they have replanned the remaining work and costs to deliver the mission for a total increase of $8 million. The mission will also implement changes to reduce programmatic risks and seek out more operational efficiencies going forward.

Mission proposals for SIMPLEx program were cost capped at $55 million. The updated mission total of $72M includes previously agreed-to changes to the mission’s implementation, including spacecraft vendor, launch provider and launch date, among others.

The team continues to work on spacecraft assembly, having just begun flight system integration at Lockheed Martin. The spacecraft’s two science instruments – the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper from JPL, and the Lunar Thermal Mapper from the University of Oxford, funded by the United Kingdom Space Agency – are scheduled to be delivered before the end of the year. The next milestone is an operational readiness review of tools and procedures for mission operations. Mission operations will be conducted from the Caltech campus.

The spacecraft will arrive at the Moon and begin its science mapping approximately six months after its mid-2023 launch. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch as a secondary payload on the second lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, called IM-2.

The small satellite mission is part of NASA’s SIMPLEx program, which provides opportunities for low-cost, high risk science missions that are responsive to requirements for flexibility. These lower cost missions serve as an ideal platform for technical and architecture innovation, contributing to NASA’s science research and technology development objectives. SIMPLEx mission investigations are managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama as part of the Discovery Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.