The inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) sent the Orion capsule on a historic mission to the Moon and back, but the rocket’s secondary payloads have been faltering.
NASA’s Luna-H Map cubesat launched aboard SLS on November 16 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, along with 9 other miniature satellites as secondary payloads. The lunar cubesat is tasked with a mission to measure the amount of water-ice hiding in the Moon’s shadowed regions. However, the tiny probe failed to perform a crucial maneuver on Monday ahead of its planned lunar flyby. NASA is still hoping to resolve Luna-H Map’s glitch over the next few months in an effort to salvage the mission, the space agency wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.
Following its launch, Luna-H Map was one of six Artemis cubesats cable of sending radio signal to ground teams. Around 5.5 hours after launch, the cubesat powered on and communicated with Earth, according to NASA. Luna-H Map also deployed its solar arrays, neutron spectrometer, and other onboard instruments, with the spectrometer even collecting some initial raw data.
A day later, the mission team turned on the cubesat’s propulsion system in anticipation of its planned flyby of the Moon. However, despite several attempts, the spacecraft could not fire its engine in time for Monday’s lunar flyby. The spacecraft was supposed to use this propulsive maneuver to direct it towards its orbit around the Moon.
The cubesat’s propulsion system valve may be stuck, according to the mission team’s initial assessment. The team believes that, if the valve is heated, it could eventually free itself, which would allow for ignition. “If the propulsion system is able to achieve thrust within the next few months, the mission may still recover some or all of Luna-H Map’s original science mission,” NASA wrote.
Mission planners still have some options available, including some alternate trajectories that could place Luna-H Map into lunar orbit. If it takes more than a few months to fix the spacecraft’s malfunction, there may be other trajectories outside the Earth-Moon system that would allow the cubesat to travel to nearby asteroids and study their hydrogen content instead, according to NASA.
Ground teams have already sent commands to Luna-H Map to heat its propulsion valve in hopes that the spacecraft might be able to achieve thrust sooner rather than later. The cubesat’s star tracker, a camera that measures the position of stars to help with orientation, also managed to capture a number of images of the Moon, which the spacecraft may be able to beam down within the next few days.
Luna-H Map is not the only cubesat that launched on board SLS and later encountered trouble. Two cubesats have not made contact, namely NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) and Miles Space’s Team Miles, while Lockheed Martin’s LunIR cubesat has only been able to transmit a weak signal.
Six out of the 10 cubesats were deemed operational after liftoff: Southwest Research Institute’s CuSP (for tracking the Sun’s particles and magnetic fields), JAXA’s EQUULEUS (for scanning Earth’s plasmasphere), BioSentinel (for studying the effects of deep-space radiation on living organisms), and the European Space Agency’s ArgoMoon (which observed Orion’s cryogenic propulsion stage shortly after launch), in addition to Lunar IceCube and LunaH-Map.
Similar to Luna-H Map, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA is also trying to salvage a cubesat; its tiny OMOTENASHI lunar lander ran into trouble early on when communications with ground control became unstable. The space agency determined that it would be unable to land OMOTENASHI on the Moon, but JAXA is hoping that the cubesat can carry out a different mission by measuring radiation outside of Earth’s magnetosphere, JAXA stated on Tuesday.
Cubesats are lower-cost missions that vary in their success rate. However, this may be an unusually high failure rate for cubesats launched on board the same mission, raising questions over whether or not the delays of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission could have affected the cubesats’ performance.