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NASA's Lunar Flashlight mission operator reports at Small Satellite conference

GOES-16 captured this view of the moon while looking across the surface of the Earth on Jan. 15. The satellite uses the moon to calibrate its imaging device in much the same way a photographer uses a light meter.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The original objective of the Lunar Flashlight mission was to navigate a small satellite into the moon's orbit. After problems with the propulsion system, the team set out a different trajectory in order to test the satellites capabilities.

This year’s Small Satellite conference kicked off last weekend with talks held at USU's Logan campus recreation center. On Sunday, Michael Hauge, a former student at Georgia Tech, presented a talk detailing his experience as a mission operator on NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission.

The Lunar Flashlight is a small satellite, about the size of a briefcase, that was launched into orbit in December 2022. The satellite was designed to orbit the moon and shoot near-infrared lasers that would then reflect back to the satellite and provide information about the possibility of ice stored in the moon’s craters.

“Everyone in space is interested in water on the moon right now. It's a really big goal to map the distributions of what we have a lot of indirect evidence for, but no direct evidence for, because it would be really important for future human missions to the moon,” Hauge said.

Hauge said the original mission concept was to spend three months getting to the moon. He said this is no simple task because of what physicists call the three-body problem. When you have to consider the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon, Hauge said the orbits become very complex.

However, it wasn’t the complexity of the orbits that became a problem for the group. Instead, it was the onboard propulsion system. Hague said within two days the team realized the system wasn’t operating properly, and after months of troubleshooting they had to target a different trajectory.

But despite the fact that the Lunar Flashlight didn’t reach the orbit of the moon, Hauge said the mission was successful in many ways.

“Even with the problems with the propulsion system, the individual components on the propulsion system all exceeded our expectations. Our altitude control system performed great, our radio performed great, our flight computer performed great. And this is all great, what they call 'flight heritage' for these components so that other future missions can use the same components with confidence that they'll work,” Hauge said.

Hauge added that the technologies the team successfully demonstrated will likely be taken to the moon on small satellites in the future.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.