One of Artemis I’s Cube-Sat Missions Is in Deep Trouble, Time Running Out for Lunar Orbit

As far as its primary objectives are concerned. You know, taking off like a dragster, sprinting to Lunar orbit, and returning without so much as breaking a sweat, Artemis I was a complete success. Its secondary cube cube-satellite mission, on the other hand, is a whole different story entirely.
LunaH-Map 25 photos
Photo: Arizona State University
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Even the most fervent NASA junkie is liable to forget at least once that Artemis I was a multi-faceted mission with objectives all over the scientific spectrum. That's on top of all the spacecraft testing and scientific analysis that's par for the course in this field of work.

This is why you might be surprised to learn that the LunaH-Map satellite not only exists and was launched aboard the Artemis I's SLS rocket but that it's also on the fritz. Quite a bummer if you thought the Artemis I mission was nothing short of a grand slam in execution.

But let's take a deep dive and find out why Artemis I's secondary mission is in serious jeopardy in the first place. For starters, let's introduce you to the LunaH-Map cube satellite. Though barely as large as the box you'd store your Jordan brand sneakers inside, LunaH-Maps's mission is of vital importance to the future of human-crewed Lunar exploration.

Scientists have long known that the Moon is much less of a boring, dull rock in the sky than most people give it credit for. Mixed in amongst the endless electrostatically-charged regolith is a breadth of minerals and compounds that are nothing short of extremely rare here on Earth. There are compounds present like helium-3, a superb potential rocket fuel, or beryllium, commonly used on Earth as moderator material in nuclear reactors.

Photo: NASA/Arizona State University
Despite the fancy names of elements most outside spaceflight enthusiast circles haven't heard of, the most important element present on the Moon might just be plain, old-fashioned water ice. These Lunar ice pockets are hidden in caves and deep crater pockets on parts of the Moon's surface that seldom receive direct sunlight. Knowing this, the benefits of a ready supply of native Moon-slushy that can be turned into liquid water speak for themselves.

This water-ice hidden deep beneath craters and lava tubes across both Lunar poles is liable to be rock-solid by frigid temperatures where sunlight can't reach. So frozen, in fact, that adding rapsberry syrup like some kind of fair-ground confectionary is going to be pretty darn difficult. That's a joke of course, but now you're envisioning astronauts sipping on cosmic slushies while surveying Shackelton crater. You're welcome for that mental image.

One could elementally separate hydrogen from the oxygen of this Lunar ice and turn each element into rocket fuel and oxidizer, respectively. Or, one could simply thaw it out into liquid water for use in growing plants, for plumbing, or even when astronauts get parched. With this in mind, it should make perfect sense why LunaH-Map going haywire is a much bigger deal than most realize.

Built by a team consisting of engineering students and fellows from Arizona State University, the cube-satellite sports dimensions of 25 by ten by eight centimeters and weighs in at 3.4 kg (7.5 lbs). Using a technique called Neutron Spectroscopy, the probe was set to track in just what ways solar radiation interacts with the Lunar soil and all the rare-Earth elements therein.

Photo: NASA/Arizona State University
Where low counts of radiation-derived neutrons are present, one can deduce exactly where deposits of Lunar ice are located. Remember, water is a very common moderator material inside man-made nuclear reactors. Using the same principles, LunaH-Map was tasked to set a map of the Lunar terrain in ways not many other artificial satellites have. Certainly, no such space probe of its type has been quite so puny. Launched aboard the inaugural launch of the SLS booster rocket in November 2022, LunaH-Map was one of six cube satellites also hitching a ride aboard the novel rocket.

Along with the rest of the Artemis I mission, everything looked good for Arizona State University's prized pint-sized spacecraft. Its paltry thruster engines need not generate much thrust to orient the tiny satellite on the perfect course for Lunar orbit. Thankfully, the SLS's 8.8 million pounds of launch thrust did most of the hard work itself.

But an almighty boost from what must have felt like a hand from the gods is all for nothing if the satellite's engines fail to fire at all. That's exactly the predicament Luna H-Map finds itself in as of early January 2023. The satellite was due to fly past the Moon on November 21st in preparation for entry into Lunar Orbit.

Instead, the probe's mission control has been fighting tooth and nail, attempting every procedural troubleshooting method possible from the ground. As far as engineers are aware, the problem appears to be a partially stuck valve inside one of the cube satellite's thrusters. A series of thermal generators run by the probe's 9.6-Watt data acquisition power supply have attempted to un-stick the valve. But if all fails, the LunaH-Map probe could miss its second and final attempt at achieving Lunar orbit.

Photo: NASA/Arizona State University
In this worst-case scenario, representatives from NASA and ASU have indicated a secondary target of a near-Earth asteroid is not entirely out of the picture. For the moment, engineers haven't a moment to spare. Each passing second without operational probe thrusters is another step towards missing its date with destiny, at least in the short term.

With Artemis I's Orion space vehicle already safe and sound back home at the Kennedy Space Center, LunaH-Map is the final piece of the puzzle remaining before the mission can be considered a success in its entirety. With all this rigamarole about Lunar water ice, the first human-crewed mission to set boots on the Moon's South Pole would definitely want LunaH-Map's data on hand before they go digging around for Lunar snow cones essentially site unseen. It's like the space fairing equivalent of buying a used car on Craigslist.

Check out more space news and so much more real soon here on autoevolution.
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