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NASA’s Lunar Flashlight suffers engine trouble on way to the moon

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 1/19/2023 Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel

A small NASA satellite that will hunt for ice on the moon is facing propulsion headaches since it launched on a SpaceX rocket last month.

The Lunar Flashlight took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as one of two moonbound payloads on board a Falcon 9 on Dec. 11. Both it and the private HAKUTO-R Mission lunar lander from Japanese company ispace are taking a cost-saving, four-month trip to the moon.

NASA last week, though, said mission managers out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have identified less-than-expected thrust from three of its four engines.

The underperforming propulsion was discovered three days after launch, according to a NASA update. The plan was for the four engines to perform short-duration burns of up to a couple of seconds at a time.

“Based on ground testing, the team thinks that the underperformance might be caused by obstructions in the fuel lines that may be limiting the propellant flow to the thrusters,” the update reads.

As a troubleshooting remedy, teams plan to perform longer burns that may clear the lines and attempt to keep the probe on target.

If that doesn’t work, an alternative plan using daily course correction burns is in play as well.

The small satellite has limited fuel, though. Its goal is to achieve a near-rectilinear halo orbit that would bring it within 9 miles of the moon’s south pole at its closest approach. The satellite has near-infrared lasers that will attempt to find surface ice in that region’s permanently shadowed craters.

NASA is interested in ice as both a fuel and air source to support a future lunar base. The planned Artemis III mission that could fly in 2025 is looking to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 with several south pole landing sites being considered.

The orbital path is relatively new for NASA with only the small CAPSTONE satellite mission that launched in June 2022 having entered it. The orbit saves energy using both the Earth and moon gravity to keep it in place. The path will take Lunar Flashlight as far as 43,000 miles from the moon at its farthest orbital point.

NASA plans to use the same orbit for its future Gateway lunar space station that will be used to support Artemis missions beginning with Artemis IV later this decade.

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