NASA water-hunting moon cubesat ready to launch with SpaceX

gold electronics box with four black solar panels in cross shape
A photograph of the Lunar Flashlight spacecraft being tested prior to launch. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA is going all in on the moon, and an upcoming mission called Lunar Flashlight will add lasers to the party.

During the mission, a small satellite (SmallSat), roughly the size of a briefcase, will skim the moon's surface and use lasers to peer into lunar craters, searching for water ice in places we haven't been able to explore yet. Lunar Flashlight will launch no earlier than Nov. 22 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rideshare, joining Japan's Hakuto-R lander and the United Arab Emirates' Rashid 1 rover.

"We are going to make definitive surface water ice measurements in permanently shadowed regions for the first time," Barbara Cohen, Lunar Flashlight principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement. "We will be able to correlate Lunar Flashlight's observations with other lunar missions to understand how extensive that water is and whether it could be used as a resource by future explorers."

Related: Live updates for NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission

Lunar Flashlight was originally due to ride along on NASA's Artemis 1 mission, flying on a massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket currently targeting launch early on Wednesday (Nov. 16). However, the satellite missed the deadline for integration onto that spacecraft, prompting a search for a new launch vehicle.

Once launched, Lunar Flashlight will take approximately three months to reach the moon. Then, it will enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit, which is far less fuel-intensive than other orbits; because of the SmallSat's diminutive size, it cannot carry much propellant. (NASA's CAPSTONE mission, which arrived at the moon Sunday, Nov. 13, will use the same type of orbit for the same reason.) At the farthest point in its orbit, Lunar Flashlight will be 42,000 miles (68,000 kilometers) from the moon and, at its closest, just 9 miles (14 km) above the lunar surface. 

An artist's depiction of Lunar Flashlight at work at the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

The SmallSat will be the first satellite to use a new type of propellant: a more environmentally friendly monopropellant called Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic (ASCENT) that uses a catalyst rather than an oxidizer to burn. ASCENT is safer to store and transport than the more commonly used propellant hydrazine, which is extremely toxic to humans and can cause severe damage to the body. 

"This is an exciting time for lunar exploration," Roger Hunter, Small Spacecraft Technology program manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said in the statement. "The launch of Lunar Flashlight, along with the many small satellite missions aboard Artemis 1, may form the foundations for science discoveries as well as support future missions to the moon's surface." 

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Stefanie Waldek
Contributing writer contributing writer Stefanie Waldek is a self-taught space nerd and aviation geek who is passionate about all things spaceflight and astronomy. With a background in travel and design journalism, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, she specializes in the budding space tourism industry and Earth-based astrotourism. In her free time, you can find her watching rocket launches or looking up at the stars, wondering what is out there. Learn more about her work at