…It’s known that water ice exists below the lunar regolith (broken rock and dust), but scientists don’t yet understand whether surface ice frost covers the floors inside these cold craters. To find out, NASA is sending Lunar Flashlight, a small satellite (or SmallSat) no larger than a briefcase. Swooping low over the lunar South Pole, it will use lasers to shed light on these dark craters – much like a prospector looking for hidden treasure by shining a flashlight into a cave. The mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-November.
“This launch will put the satellite on a trajectory that will take about three months to reach its science orbit,” said John Baker, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Then Lunar Flashlight will try to find water ice on the surface of the Moon in places that nobody else has been able to look.”
After launch, mission navigators will guide the spacecraft way past the Moon. It will then be slowly pulled back by gravity from Earth and the Sun before it settles into a wide, looping, science-gathering orbit. This near-rectilinear halo orbit will take it 42,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the Moon at its most distant point and, at its closest approach, the satellite will graze the surface of the Moon, coming within 9 miles (15 kilometers) above the lunar South Pole.
SmallSats carry a limited amount of propellent, so fuel-intensive orbits aren’t possible. A near-rectilinear halo orbit requires far less fuel than traditional orbits, and Lunar Flashlight will be only the second NASA mission to use this type of trajectory…
Flashlight will also be the first mission to use a four-laser reflectometer to look for water ice on the Moon. The reflectometer works by using near-infrared wavelengths that are readily absorbed by water to identify ice on the surface. Should the lasers hit bare rock, their light will reflect back to the spacecraft, signaling a lack of ice. But if the light is absorbed, it would mean these dark pockets do indeed contain ice. The greater the absorption, the more ice may be at the surface….