Trio of International Satellites Headed to the Moon — An Orbiter, a Lander, and a Rover

Trio of International Satellites Headed to the Moon — An Orbiter, a Lander, and a Rover

Three small spacecraft are headed to the Moon today — a U.S. orbiter, a Japanese lander, and a UAE rover. They are more examples of what companies and countries are trying to accomplish with lower cost but higher risk small satellites travelling far from Earth. The track record so far is mixed, but they open opportunities for more participants in space exploration.

NASA’s Lunar Flashlight, Japan’s HAKUTO-R M1 lander, and the United Arab Emirates’ Rashid rover lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL this morning at 2:38 am ET. The launch was delayed for almost two weeks due to undisclosed technical problems with the rocket, but both launch and landing of the first stage back at CCSFS went perfectly today.

All three are taking the low energy transfer route to the Moon that requires little propellant, but takes several months.

HAKUTO-R M1, built and owned by ispace, a Japanese company, is the first commercial lunar lander. It is delivering the UAE’s 10 kilogram Rashid lunar rover. If all goes according to plan, Japan will become only the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon successfully and the UAE will be the first Arab country on the Moon.

Landing on the Moon is no easy feat especially for these small spacecraft. Israel and India each launched small lunar landers and neither succeeded. Nor did Japan’s first attempt a few weeks ago with the tiny OMONTENASHI lander, one of the 10 cubesats launched by NASA’s Space Launch System rocket as part of the Artemis I mission.

ESA is providing tracking and communications services for ispace. The Rashid rover, named for Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, builder of modern Dubai, was provided by the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. Amer AlSayegh AlGhaferi, Senior Director of the Space Engineering Department, said after launch this morning they expect the first signal in two days.

Not only is HAKUTO-R M1 delivering the rover, but it will try to collect lunar dirt (regolith) and sell photographs and other data about it to NASA for $5,000 as part of a NASA solicitation in 2020.

HAKUTO-R M1 and Rashid are scheduled to land in the Moon’s Atlas Crater at the end of April 2023.

Also along for the ride on the Falcon 9 today was NASA/JPL’s Lunar Flashlight, a cubesat that was ejected from the Falcon 9’s second stage. It will go into a highly eccentric orbit about the Moon that will periodically bring it very close to the Moon’s South Pole. Four lasers will beam into deep crevices to determine if water ice is present.

Previous spacecraft have sent back indications that water, possibly deposited by comet impacts over the eons, exists as ice in permanently shadowed areas of the South Pole that are never exposed to the Sun. NASA and others who want to set up human outposts on the Moon are eager to discover how much and how difficult it would be to extract.

This spacecraft, the size of a briefcase, carries a reflectometer with four near-infrared lasers. If the lasers hit rock, the light will reflect back to the spacecraft. If they hit water, the light will be absorbed.

This illustration shows NASA’s Lunar Flashlight using its four-laser reflectometer to search for surface water ice as it makes a close approach over the Moon’s South Pole. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lunar Flashlight will be just the second spacecraft to enter a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, following CAPSTONE. NASA plans to use that orbit for the Gateway space station as part of the Artemis program.

The NRHO orbit will take it 43,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the Moon at one end of the ellipsoid and as close as 9 miles (15 kilometers) at the other when it’s over the South Pole. Only a small amount of propellant is needed to maintain that orbit and NASA also is using an environmentally “green” propellant on this mission that was tested in 2020 called Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic (ASCENT).

Lunar Flashlight mission control at George Tech. Credit: Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech faculty and students designed the propulsion system along with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and will operate the spacecraft from mission control at the university.

The 14 operators, eight graduate students and six undergraduates, were well aware of the risks. Concerned that ejection from the Falcon 9’s second stage might send the spacecraft tumbling, they “spent a year writing and fine-tuning the sequence of commands to turn on the flight computer and attitude control system” to ensure it could find the Sun and point its solar panels in the correct direction according to Georgia Tech.

That planning seems to have worked. The spacecraft sent a beacon back through NASA’s Deep Space Network shortly after separation indicating it’s OK as it begins a roughly 6-month journey to the Moon and a 122-day science mission once in NRHO.

This illustration shows the full Lunar Flashlight mission trajectory, from launch to lunar orbit insertion (LOI), on the left. The inset depicts the spacecraft’s long, elliptical lunar orbit during the science missions, when Lunar Flashlight will use lasers to scan for ice in permanently shadowed regions of the moon’s south pole. (LEOP = launch and early operations phase; TCM = trajectory correction maneuver, when the propulsion system will fire; LOI = lunar orbit insertion; OTM = orbital trim maneuver, when the propulsion system fires to maintain the proper lunar orbit). Credit: Georgia Tech

Several cubesats have tried to make the journey already. CAPSTONE is one of the success stories, though it was no easy feat.

Lunar Flashlight actually was supposed to launch as one of 13 cubesats on the Artemis I mission, but it and two others weren’t ready in time to be integrated onto the Space Launch System rocket when launch was anticipated early this year. As it turned out, Artemis I launched only 25 days ago on November 16. Perhaps ironically, the Artemis I mission is coming to an end today, the same day Lunar Flashlight launched, with the splashdown of the Orion capsule coming up early this afternoon.

Of the 10 cubesats that did launch on Artemis I, only three are confirmed to be in good health: Japan’s EQUULEUS, though it has another 18 months to go before it reaches its final destination; NASA’s BioSentinel, which recovered from a tumble; and Miles Space’s Team Miles. Miles Space confirmed the spacecraft is “alive and sending radio signals” only recently.

Six of the remaining seven failed partially or completely: Lunar IceCube, NEAScout, LunaH-Map, LunIR, CuSP and Japan’s OMOTENASHI. The status of ArgoMoon, is unclear.

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