Artemis 1 cubesat finishes mission after detecting water and ice on the moon

a small T-shaped satellite
Artist's rendering of NASA's LunaH-Map cubesat, which was designed to measure the distribution and abundance of hydrogen in the moon's south polar region. (Image credit: NASA/Arizona State University)

The mission of an ice-hunting cubesat is officially at an end.

NASA officials announced Thursday (Aug. 3) that the agency had ceased operations earlier this year on its Artemis 1 moon mission ride-along cubesat, called LunaH-Map.

These types of small satellites "are inherently risky, as they are designed to test the bounds of what can be achieved with lower-cost missions," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division, said in an agency statement

Operations ceased in May, as NASA previously predicted, due to a stuck valve in the cubesat's propulsion system that stranded the little satellite in the wrong orbit. NASA officials made no official declaration of mission's end until Aug. 3, however.

Related: The 10 greatest images from NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission

The statement emphasized that LunaH-Map, although it missed mapping the south pole of the moon, did achieve one of its main mission objectives. The mission was led by Craig Hardgrove at Arizona State University, and showed great performance on its main instrument.

The cubesat's neutron spectrometer "can detect water and ice at the lunar surface," the statement said. The data will continue to be parsed and the design of the cubesat will inform future missions, agency officials added.

Mission science will also live on, Hardgrove stated. "We've said goodbye to our little spacecraft, but this is not the last you'll be hearing about it," Hardgrove wrote on Twitter. "Plenty of papers and presentations are in the pipeline this year and next about the technology & science."

A version of the spacecraft's spectrometer will fly on another NASA mission, called Lunar-VISE or Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer. It's part of a payload that will fly to the moon's surface on a future mission under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program that funds private landers, rovers and science on the surface.

LunaH-Map was part of a cluster of cubesats launching with Artemis 1 in November 2022. While many of them went on to complete their major objectives, other ones also struggled. For example, Japan's Omotenashi spacecraft could not drop a tiny lander on the moon due to a communications issue. And NEA Scout remained silent after launch, leaving it unable to solar sail over to a near-Earth asteroid.

The larger Artemis 1 mission met all its major goals, including flying an Orion spacecraft around the moon and sending it safely to Earth. NASA is hard at work on the second mission of the series, Artemis 2, now expected to launch four astronauts around the moon no sooner than 2024. Artemis 3, a moon-landing mission, may follow in 2025 or 2026 if all keeps to schedule.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: