NASA Marshall Team Delivers Tiny, Powerful ‘Lunar Flashlight’ Propulsion System
Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama have built some of the biggest rocket engines ever to light up the icy expanses of space. Now, Marshall and his business partners have delivered one of the smallest propulsion systems in its history, designed to help propel an upcoming NASA mission to shed new light on the Moon’s south pole – in search of a much more useful type of ice cream.
Lunar Flashlight, no bigger than a briefcase, is an innovative, low-cost CubeSat developed and maintained by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. As the spacecraft orbits the Moon, its near-infrared lasers will illuminate the permanently shadowed surface of the lunar pole, while its onboard reflectometer will measure surface reflection and composition to identify large deposits of ice.
Scheduled to launch later in 2022 via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Lunar Flashlight will search for water ice on the lunar surface, which could be collected and purified for drinking water or converted into breathable oxygen or even fuel for life. rocket.
NASA is looking for lunar ice deposits to answer long-standing questions about the composition, quantity, and distribution of frozen water on the Moon. The mission will help determine where it exists on the surface – and if there is enough to support future lunar colonies and to power advanced lunar habitats and laboratories.
The Lunar Flashlight propulsion system was accelerated for design, manufacturing and testing in July 2019. “We had to reduce the propulsion technology to something that could fit in a backpack, but with the same challenges as larger propulsion systems,” said Daniel Cavender, project manager at Marshall. “This has been facilitated by our strategic investments in small satellite propulsion technologies over the past few years.”
The work has also benefited from new partnerships with industry and academia. Marshall led the design of the compact propulsion system and oversaw hardware development at its in-house facilities and at Plasma Processes LLC of Huntsville and Flight Works of Irvine, California. Researchers from the Space Systems Design Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta built the fuel tank and electrical controller and led system integration and testing.
The tiny craft is powered by a chemical monopropellant — a fuel capable of burning on its own without a separate oxidizer — known as Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic, or ASCENT. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and first tested on NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion mission, which ended in 2020, ASCENT is a low-toxic “green” alternative to conventional hydrazine monpropellant .
“CubeSats like this are ideal tools for demonstrating new technologies while enabling compelling science and exploration,” Cavender said. “They have a relatively short design life cycle and modest cost, but the scientific return can be enormous.”
Beyond the obvious value of finding drinking water for astronauts, the ability to convert lunar water ice into hydrogen and oxygen – the basic requirements for making rocket fuel – could help establish a permanent fuel depot on the Moon, enabling lunar launches of future deep space missions to Mars and other destinations.
“The mission will demonstrate our ability to use powerful and compact propulsion CubeSats for a variety of science missions to the Moon and across the Solar System,” Cavender said. “It’s a game-changing capability for planetary exploration and science.”
Marshall delivered the propulsion system to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in May 2021 for spacecraft integration. Lunar Flashlight will return to Marshall to refuel before being transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be launched as a secondary payload on the same rocket as Intuitive Machines’ first mission as part of the NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. Once launched, Lunar Flashlight will take about six months to reach the Moon, where it will achieve polar orbit and begin its two-month primary mission.
Selected by NASA’s Artemis Campaign Development Division in 2014, the Lunar Flashlight CubeSat mission is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, part of the agency’s Space Technology Missions Directorate, through a NASA Small Business Innovation Research Grant. Dr. Barbara Cohen, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is its measurement manager.