There apparently isn't much time left to save NASA's LunaH-Map cubesat.
The tiny probe was one of 10 cubesats that launched as ride-along payloads last November on Artemis 1, the first-ever mission of NASA's moon-bound Artemis pogram.
LunaH-Map aimed to map the abundance and distribution of water ice near the south pole of the moon. But the spacecraft failed to perform a crucial engine burn five days after liftoff and didn't get into lunar orbit as planned.
Mission team members soon traced the problem to a stuck valve in the cubesat's propulsion system. They've been trying to troubleshoot it ever since, but those efforts may wrap up soon.
"If we cannot ignite the [propulsion] system, we are likely to end operations at the end of May," LunaH-Map principal investigator Craig Hardgrove, of Arizona State University, said on Monday (May 1) at the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference, according to SpaceNews.
Related: The 10 greatest images from NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission
The Artemis 1 cubesats were integrated into a stage adapter on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket in the fall of 2021, as SpaceNews noted. But the mission didn't get off the ground until the following November, thanks to technical issues and bad weather.
That delay may be the ultimate cause of the problem that afflicted LunaH-Map, Hardgrove said.
"We had informed NASA that this propulsion system was not built to withstand a long launch delay, longer than four or five months," he said on Monday, according to SpaceNews.
LunaH-Map wasn't the only Artemis 1 cubesat to have a rocky road after liftoff. For example, Japan's OMOTENASHI spacecraft suffered a communications problem that prevented it from dropping a tiny lander on the moon. And NEA Scout, which aimed to solar-sail its way to a near-Earth asteroid and then study the space rock up close, never phoned home after the Nov. 16 launch.
But the mission teams of all the Artemis 1 cubesats should hold their heads up high, Hardgrove said.
"Characterizing any of them as a failure is not fair," he said, according to SpaceNews. "They've all developed a substantial amount of technology."
Artemis 1 succeeded overall, sending an uncrewed Orion capsule to lunar orbit and back. NASA is now gearing up for Artemis 2, which will launch four astronauts around the moon in late 2024, if all goes according to plan. Artemis 3, which will put boots down near the lunar south pole, is scheduled to follow a year or so later.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
To the extent that the unresponsive cubesats show us what does not work, yes, they are not failures.
That said, the folks who developed those cubesats did achieve some useful things. If the Artemis 1 mission had launched on schedule, who knows if the cubesats would have actually achieved their design missions. So, I would not necessarily chalk up those failures against the cubesats themselves. Artemis reliability and schedulability are substantial issues, and the Artemis 1 mission was partly to get data on vehicle performance. But, it was also intended to go well enough to man-rate the vehicles for at least moon orbit and return.
"Failure" is when the success criteria is not met. There are various levels of success and failure depending on how much of the success criteria is met. A cubesat that leaves the pad and never sends any data back is known as a "complete failure".
I’m arguing that people should stop focusing on the one success requirement that was not met for any number of these satellites, and instead focus on those success criteria that were met. Particularly since we don’t always know what success criteria they were working towards along the way. A satellite that doesn’t phone home is not necessarily a “complete failure”.
I am not talking about anything but: "A cubesat that leaves the pad and never sends any data back." NEA Scout, which was not heard from after launch, is an example of this. Please try to focus and don't put words into my mouth.
From eoportal dot org:
"NEA Scout’s science objectives are to retire strategic knowledge gaps for Human exploration and increase our understanding of near earth asteroids by focusing on a class of targets (<100 m) that has not been covered by previous and ongoing missions.
Specific measurement objectives include global shape determination and regional morphology mapping, determination of rotational parameters, including whether the object is a single axis rotator or a tumbler, albedo mapping on a global scale, and high-resolution imaging of a fraction of the surface. At closest approach, the resolution is projected to be <10 cm/pix."
None of the science objectives were met. That is the definition of mission failure.
As for your objectives of providing students with experience and professors with jobs, they are not listed in the mission science objectives. They would be known as "nice to haves" or "side benefits" but play no role in determining mission success. When they go back for more money and assert that the mission was partly successful, they will lose credibiity. Better to be honest, admit failure, and present a plan that it won't happen again.
Such a plan might be presented to the funding agency for the next attempt.
- Admission of complete failure
- Say you are sorry
- Tell them how disappointed all of the team is
- Emphasize how much you appreciate the hard work that went on
by all of the people who worked on it
- Explain that it was a good learning experience
- Plan to identify every possible means of failure.
- Brainstorming in groups - different groups, different mixes of people
- Outside review
- anonymous feedback
- Plan to mitigate each
- If no "Most Probable Cause" can be found then look at every facet of our organization including:
- Is there a mole in our organization?
- Are people burned out from long hours?
- Is there a bully causing problems?
- Do we have drinking and drug use going on?
- Have we been hacked?