NASA anticipates launch of Lunar Trailblazer

WASHINGTON — NASA has found a new ride for a small lunar orbital mission that will allow the spacecraft to avoid a two-year wait for launch.

In a June 21 presentation to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said that the Lunar Trailblazer mission will now launch as a secondary payload on Intuitive Machines’ second lunar mission, called IM- 2 and part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) Program. That mission will launch in about a year, she said.

The Lunar Trailblazer was previously manifested to launch as one of several ride-sharing payloads on NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than early 2025. This schedule was driven by the development of the Lunar Trailblazer itself. IMAP, with the Lunar Trailblazer expected to be completed in early 2023.

“We removed Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP manifest so it can fly sooner,” Glaze said. She did not detail the process by which NASA decided to move the Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP launch to the IM-2, but later said that the agency’s Lunar Exploration and Discovery Program “decided to accommodate this additional cost” of the IM-2 launch. . instead of staying in IMAP.

“Our Lunar Trailblazer project is pleased that NASA has planned a launch of the Lunar Trailblazer in 2023 to bring the Lunar Trailblazer’s high-resolution water ice maps to the scientific and exploration communities to understand the lunar water cycle and inform future missions. landing pad,” Bethany Ehlmann, the Caltech professor who is the Lunar Trailblazer’s principal investigator, told SpaceNews.

The lunar science community was pushing NASA to find a previous voyage for the Lunar Trailblazer, as it became clear that the mission would be ready for launch long before IMAP. Glaze said in early 2021 that the agency was looking for alternative opportunities to launch the mission, but would keep the mission on IMAP until it found one.

The Lunar Trailblazer is equipped with a spectrometer and thermal mapper to study the distribution of water on the moon, information that could support future robotic and human missions. Ehlmann said the spacecraft passed its systems integration review in May and is scheduled for completion in early 2023.

The mission was one of three NASA selected in 2019 as part of its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program of small planetary science missions, with cost caps of $55 million and use of hitchhiking opportunities. All three had problems with their releases.

Another SIMPLEx mission, Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), was originally supposed to launch with NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere with the solar wind. However, NASA removed EscaPADE from that mission after NASA selected a Falcon Heavy to launch Psyche, changing its trajectory such that it could no longer be left on Mars during a flyby. A redesigned EscaPADE is now moving forward, but has yet to receive a release.

Janus, a mission with small twin spacecraft that would study binary asteroids, is also scheduled to launch with Psyche as a shared ride. However, a delay in the launch of Psyche from early August to September 20 means that Janus will no longer be able to use its original trajectory for flybys of two binary asteroids.

On the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Joan Salute, program executive in NASA’s planetary science division, said the Janus mission team is still studying possible alternative targets for the spacecraft if it launches into the new window. “They are dedicated to getting as much science as possible, whenever they release it,” she said.

These issues prompted discussion at the committee meeting on ways to improve launch opportunities for small missions such as the SIMPLEx program. Glaze noted that these missions are categorized by the agency as “Class D,” which accept a greater degree of risk and must fit within a cost cap that, in turn, drives the use of ridesharing.

NASA is looking at ways to improve the ridesharing process for these missions, including creating a ridesharing office within the NASA Science Mission Directorate to coordinate these opportunities.

NASA is also looking at low-cost dedicated launch options for small science missions through its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which awarded contracts to 12 companies in January, making them eligible to compete for future task requests. “We haven’t made any specific plans to make use of it,” Salute said of VADR, “but this is another avenue that opens up.”

The Lunar Trailblazer won’t be the first NASA mission to hitch a ride on a CLPS launch. Lunar Flashlight is a cubesat originally scheduled to launch on the Space Launch System’s first mission, Artemis 1. However, problems with its propulsion system prevented it from being delivered in time last summer to be integrated into the rocket.

At a lunar science workshop in May, Barbara Cohen, a Lunar Flashlight scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said the spacecraft was scheduled to launch as a secondary payload on Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lunar mission, slated for no sooner. than at the end of this year.

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