NASA Space

NASA is hoping to deploy the lunar orbiter smallsat spacecraft sooner than later

NASA is exploring ways to facilitate the development of a tiny lunar orbiter flight, highlighting the difficulties it faces when it tries to utilize rideshare launch opportunities more efficiently. The Lunar Trailblazer spaceship is an orbiter which has a spectrometer as well as a thermal mapper to investigate the circulation of water on the surface. In November, the mission reached its Key Decision Point (KDP) C evaluation, allowing it to move forward with full-scale production.

In October 2022, the spacecraft is expected to be finished. However, the fact that it is a rideshare payload which is on the Falcon 9 mission of Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, it is not going to deploy until at least 2025 February. (IMAP). Last year, the project’s completion was pushed back from October 2024 to February 2025 due to delays in progress triggered by the pandemic, delaying the launch of other rideshare payloads such as the Lunar Trailblazer.

During a review of the NASA planetary science initiatives at the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science’s March 24 conference, the delay was brought up. Clive Neal, who is a committee member from University of Notre Dame, inquired whether Lunar Trailblazer could be launched as a co-manifested payload that is on one of Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) missions set to fly to the moon later this year.

Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science division chief, replied, “We’re searching around the whole directorate for another trip for Lunar Trailblazer; a little sooner if that’s feasible.” She mentioned that NASA was not yet considering excluding Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP launch but that they were “looking and holding their eyes open” for other options.

To date, NASA has handed out six CLPS prizes, including two each to the Astrobotic and Intuitive Computers, as well as individual flights to Firefly Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. On landers built by those firms, each project will carry a package of the NASA payloads to the moon’s surface, which may also include payloads from other clients.

It’s uncertain if all of those missions have sufficiently spare space to support the Lunar Trailblazer orbiter, partially because others have yet to confirm their launch dates. However, Glaze pointed out that the CLPS program’s design, under which NASA buys payload services rather than landers, will render including a co-manifested payload more complex. She said, “We’re purchasing a service from them, as well as the service we’ve arranged with them is for the device payloads.”