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Ready or Not, Here Comes the Lunar IceCube and You Can't Hide, Dear Moon Water
The brightest celestial object in the sky, the Moon, is like a black box full of mysteries and secrets, for which people feel this frenzy, unable to stop their desire to have a piece of what is inside.

Ready or Not, Here Comes the Lunar IceCube and You Can't Hide, Dear Moon Water

A map of the Moon, featuring the maria depicted as oceans, published by astronomer Michael Van Langren in 1645The Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole in a permanently shadowed region of the MoonApollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin uses a scoop to collect soil samples on the lunar surfaceA mosaic image of the south pole of the Moon as taken by NASA’s Clementine spacecraftArtist’s depiction of NASA’s Cassini spacecraftAreas of the Moon’s south pole with possible deposits of water ice, shown in blue. The map is based on data taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance OrbiterA composite image using data from NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper. The blue shows areas of confirmed water ice on the lunar surfaceAn illustration of H2O molecules on the lunar surface. NASA’s SOFIA confirmed the existence of water on the sunlit surface of the Moon in 2020The NEA Scout and Lunar IceCube secondary payloads are the first to be installed in the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s Orion stage adapter for the Artemis I mission on July 14 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in FloridaOrion-Earth-Moon
In the early '60s, astronomers raised their first questions about the existence of something more than the eye could meet when they looked at that natural beacon of the night: the Moon. They knew there had to be something else besides that rocky and dusty surface.

At that time, only certain assumptions had been made based on measurements and various observations because the technology was still rudimentary for a closer look. Although the Apollo mission managed to get humans on the Moon, the soil samples collected back then did not reveal any trace of water, not because it did not exist, but because the technology was insufficient, as was seen later.

Finally, in 1994, the Clementine mission was the game-changer that, after two months of data collection, suggested the existence of ice in the permanently shadowed region of the Moon. After this milestone, new missions such as Chandrayaan-1, Cassini, LRO, and LCROSS added pieces to the puzzle that revealed the Moon's structure, giving scientists new clues to exploiting its natural resources by robots or humans.

Now a new NASA mission, the second payload on the uncrewed Artemis I, is preparing to take a giant step. Integrated into the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Lunar IceCube is the satellite that will closely investigate the lunar ice dynamics on the Moon's surface and, more than that, in her exosphere.

To observe water distribution and other organic volatiles, Lunar IceCube will carry a NASA instrument called BIRCHES (Broadband InfraRed Compact High-Resolution Exploration Spectrometer), developed by Morehead State University in Kentucky with the significant support of scientists and engineers at NASA/GSFC in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Massachusetts-based Busek Company. Efficient and cost-effective, Lunar IceCube weighs 31 pounds(14.6 kg) and has the size of an eight-inch(20.32 cm) tissue box.

This was possible after its legacy hardware from a previous NASA mission was considerably minimized to one-sixth of its original size, incorporating new NanoSat technologies to develop an evolved, radiation-tolerant 6U CubeSat that can support interplanetary investigator science.

As for the travel time, the CubeSat will take up to nine months to arrive at its destination and begin orbiting the Moon. Once in orbit, Lunar IceCube's mission could last one to six months, during which the Morehead State ground station will keep it under permanent observation. Throughout this period, scientists hope to map the distribution and dynamics of water on the Moon's surface and its exosphere and understand the absorption and release of water from its regolith (the equivalent of the soil on the Earth's surface). Finding and identifying the water cycle on the Moon is essential for the future human presence on this territory.

All these efforts aim to bring scientists enough information to prepare the Moon as a second home where people can live and work, a step that will bring us closer to Mars. In this way, the Moon could become a supply station for astronauts, here being able to get fuel and other things needed by the crew on their journey to Mars, thus reducing the weight that NASA would have to carry from Earth.

"Anything we learn about the Moon is valuable," said Cliff Brambora, BIRCHES lead engineer. "The Moon is a kind of proving ground for technology and exploration, and the knowledge we gain there will help us with the potential for establishing a sustained presence on other planets, such as Mars."

The Lunar IceCube will be the pioneer that, through its discoveries about water on the Moon, will precede sustained lunar presence, a goal scientists have set out to achieve by 2024.

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