Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…
Space Exploration

Fly Me to the Moon: An Update on Missions to Earth’s Natural Satellite

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
February 10, 2023
Filed under , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Fly Me to the Moon: An Update on Missions to Earth’s Natural Satellite
Lunar Flashlight (Credit: NASA)

This is turning out to be a particularly busy year for flights to the moon, with commercial companies and universities taking leading roles. Let’s look at the status of spacecraft that are at, headed for, or being prepared for launch to our nearest celestial neighbor.

In Orbit

CAPSTONE spacecraft (Credit: NASA)

Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE)
Type: 12U CubeSat
Space Agency: NASA
Management & Operations: Advanced Space
Objectives: Evaluate near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) to be used by lunar Gateway station, measure position relative to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Launch Date: June 28, 2022
Launch Vehicle: Rocket Lab Electron

CAPSTONE is in lunar orbit, but the privately managed mission hasn’t had an easy time of it. The 12U CubeSat recently recovered from a communications outage during which it was unable to receive commands from controllers between Jan. 26 and Feb. 6. Advanced Space, which is managing the mission for NASA, said the spacecraft remained healthy, stayed on course and sent telemetry to the ground during this period.

During its voyage to the moon, CAPSTONE suffered communications problems due to a spin caused by the uncontrolled firing of one of the spacecraft’s thrusters. Controllers stopped the spin and found a way to work around the problematic thruster.

CAPSTONE’s main mission objective is to test out the near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) that will be used by the human-tended lunar Gateway station during NASA’s Artemis program. The spacecraft has completed more than 12 orbits, surpassing the original goal of six orbits.

CAPSTONE is also gearing up to test the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS), which will allow it to measure its position relative to the NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) without relying on ground stations.

“The mission team has successfully completed interface testing with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter ground systems and during the first attempt to obtain cross-link measurements on January 18th, LRO received a signal from CAPSTONE but the CAPSTONE radio system did not collect crosslink ranging measurements from the returned signal,” Advance Space said in a mission update.

“This initial attempt is informing subsequent work which will be further evaluated on upcoming attempts. Utilizing simulated measurements, the flight software for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS) has been demonstrated at the Moon, a critical step in maturing functionality that will enable future missions,” the company added.

On the Way

Lunar Flashlight (Credit: NASA)

Lunar Flashlight
Type: 6U CubeSat
Space Agency: NASA
Management: Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Georgia Tech
Objectives: Search for water ice at lunar south pole, test new technologies
Launch Date: Dec. 11, 2022
Launch Vehicle: Space X Falcon 9

Speaking of thruster problems, they are the reason Lunar Flashlight will be unable to enter a NRHO like CAPSTONE. Three of the spacecraft’s four thrusters began under performing shortly after the spacecraft was deployed as a secondary payload on ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander mission. Project engineers devised and tested a potential solution.

“Team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and Georgia Tech devised a creative maneuvering technique using one thruster: The spacecraft was spun at a rate of 6 degrees per second, or one revolution per minute, around its directed axis. Then the thruster was fired while commanding the spacecraft to remain pointed in the right direction. There was potential after 20 days, these mini-trajectory correction maneuvers would guide Lunar Flashlight to its planned near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon,” NASA said in a mission update.

“The team successfully completed quite a few 10-minute sequences on the single thruster, but soon after, that thruster also experienced a rapid loss in performance, and it became clear that the thrust being delivered was not enough to make it to the planned orbit,” the space agency added.

Engineers are working on an alternative mission in which Lunar Flashlight would enter a high Earth orbit that would allow the spacecraft to make monthly flybys of the lunar south pole.

HAKUTO-R landing sequence (Credit: ispace)

HAKUTO-R Lunar Lander
Company: ispace
Destination: Mare Frigoris
Launched: Dec. 11, 2022
Landing: April 2023
Launch Vehicle: SpaceX Falcon 9

ispace says all is well with the privately-funded HAKUTO-R lunar lander nearly two months after launch from Florida. Thus far, the mission has completed half of its 10 milestones.

HAKUTO-R Mission Milestones

NumberMilestoneSuccess CriteriaStatus
1Completion of launch preparationComplete all development processes of the Series 1 lunar lander before flight operations
Contract and prepare launch vehicle, and complete integration of lunar lander into the launch vehicle
2Completion of Launch and DeploymentComplete successful separation of the lunar lander from the launch vehicle
Provide that the lander’s structure is capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of launch, validating the design and gathering information towards future developments and missions
3Establishment of a Steady Operation State (*Initial Critical Operation Status)Establish communication link between the lander and Mission Control, confirm a stable attitude, as well as start stable generation of electrical power in orbit. The completion of this step verifies the integrity of lander core systems and customer payloads
4Completion of first orbital control maneuverComplete the first orbital control maneuver, setting the lander on a course towards the Moon and verifying operation of the main propulsion system, as well as related guidance, control and navigation system
5Completion of stable deep-space flight operations for one monthProve that the lander is capable of steady deep-space flight by completing a nominal cruise and orbital control maneuvers over a one-month period
6Completion of all deep space orbital control maneuvers before LOIComplete all planned deep space orbital control maneuvers by utilizing gravity assist effects and successfully target the first lunar orbit insertion maneuver. This stage proves the ability of the lander’s deep-space survivability, as well as the viability of ispace’s orbital planning
7Reaching the lunar gravitational field/lunar orbitComplete the first lunar orbit insertion maneuver and confirm the lander is in a lunar orbit, verifying the ability of ispace to deliver spacecraft and payloads into stable lunar orbits
8Completion of all orbital control maneuvers in lunar orbitComplete all planned lunar orbital control maneuvers before the landing sequence
Confirm the lander is ready to start the landing sequence
9Completion of lunar landingComplete the landing sequences, verifying key landing abilities for future missions
10Establishment of a steady system state after lunar landingEstablish steady telecommunication and power supply on the lunar surface after landing to support customer payloads’ surface operations.
Source: ispace

The most difficult milestones — entering orbit and touching down safely on the surface — are still to come. If successful, ispace would be the first private company to land on the moon.

HAKUTO-R lander is carrying 30 kg (66 lb) of commercial and government payloads, including:

  • United Arab Emirates’ Rashid lunar rover
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) SORA-Q transformable lunar robot
  • NGK Spark Plug Company’s solid-state battery test module
  • Mission Control Space Services Inc.’s artificial intelligence (AI) flight computer
  • multiple 360-degree cameras from Canadensys Aerospace
  • music disc with the song “SORATO” performed by Japanese rock band Sakanaction, an original supporter of Team HAKUTO during Google Lunar XPRIZE
  • panel engraved with the names of Team HAKUTO crowdfunding supporters during Google Lunar XPRIZE.

ispace is a commercial spinoff from Team HAKUTO, which competed in the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition for the first private company to land a rover on the moon. The prize ended in 2018 without a winner.

In Preparation

IM-mission’s Nova-C lander (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Nova-C Lunar Lander
Company: Intuitive Machines
Funding: NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services, private
Destination: between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Crisium
Launch Date: March 2023
Launch Vehicle: SpaceX Falcon 9

Intuitive Machines announced earlier this week that it was shifting the landing site for the IM-1 lunar lander to the south pole of the moon.

“Redirecting Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission landing site is a testament to our collective commitment to supporting NASA’s Artemis Program and advancing lunar exploration for the benefit of humanity,” said Steve Altemus, Co-Founder, President and CEO of Intuitive Machines. “The Company is honored to accept the historic and scientific responsibility of bringing the United States to the lunar South Pole Region for the first time ever.”

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander had been scheduled to land between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Crisium in the northwest quarter of the moon. A SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch the mission in late June.

NASA’s Artemis program is focused on returning astronauts to the moon. The space agency believes there is water ice and other volatiles at the south pole that can support human exploration.

IM-1 is the first of three Intuitive Machines missions being funded under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. CLPS pays private companies to deliver payloads to the moon. Companies build their own landers and can sell remaining payload space on a commercial basis.

Nova-C is expected to operate for one lunar day (14 Earth days). It will deliver the following payloads to the lunar surface:

  • Laser Retro-Reflector Array, NASA: Eight half-inch retro-reflectors that will allow orbital spacecraft to determine the lander’s precise location on the surface using laser light.
  • Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL), NASA: NDL will provide extremely precise velocity and ranging data during the lander’s descent and landing.
  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1), NASA: A CubeSat-sized S-band beacon that will demonstrate autonomous spacecraft positioning through navigation measurements.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), NASA: SCALPSS will capture video and still images of the impact the lander rocket plume has on the lunar surface.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES), NASA: A low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height, acquire observations of solar and planetary radio sources from the lunar surface, sense near-surface charged dust, and provide a first-ever measurement of the radio environment between 10 kHz and 30 MHz at the landing site.
  • EagleCAM, Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University: A camera will be ejected from Nova-C during descent to provide images of the vehicle’s landing. EagleCAM will also test an electrostatic dust-removal system.
  • ILO-X, International Lunar Observatory: An imaging suite that will capture some of the first photos of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the moon along with making other observations.
  • Lonestar, Lonestar Data Holdings: The first data center placed on the moon.
  • Omni-Heat Infinity, Columbia Sportswear: Reflectivity technology that will protect the lander from extreme lunar temperatures.
  • Lunaprise, Galactic Legacy Labs: Microfische disks with messages called lunagrams that will use words and photos to tell the story of our civilization.
  • Jeff Koons Art Cube: Digital works of Koons’ Moon Phases sculptures.

The Falcon 9 that launches IM-1 will also carry Geometric Energy Corporation’s DOGE-1 satellite as a secondary payload. It is the first spacecraft paid for with the cryptocurrency Dogecoin.

Peregrine lander undergoing electromagnetic interference testing. (Credit: Astrobotic)

Peregrine Lander
Company: Astrobotic Technology
Funding: NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services, private
Destination: Lacus Mortis
Launch Date: 2023
Launch Vehicle: Vulcan Centaur

Astrobotic’s first mission to the moon has completed its flight acceptance campaign and is ready to launch to the moon. The final hurdle was thermal-vacuum testing, which proved the Peregrine lander was capable of surviving the harsh environment of space.

”Peregrine Mission One’s (PM1) flight acceptance campaign was completed on schedule and exceeded expectations. These tests ultimately proved the quality of Peregrine’s design and workmanship over the full assembly and integration campaign. Everyone worked diligently, even through holidays, for this incredible achievement,” says Sharad Bhaskaran, Astrobotic’s PM1 mission director.

When it will launch on the maiden flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) new Vulcan rocket is unclear. Vulcan was recently shipped to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station where it is undergoing a series of tests in preparation for launch.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will deliver a suite of NASA and private payloads to the surface, including:

  • Iris Lunar Rover, Carnegie Mellon University: Iris will explore the surface.
  • Colmena, Mexican Space Agency: five small robots that will be catapulted onto the lunar surface.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer, NASA: Instrument to collect data about the lunar radiation environment.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer, NASA: Instrument to characterize lunar magnetic fields.
  • Mass Spectrometer observing lunar operations (MSolo), NASA: MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles.
  • Near-infrared Volatile Spectrometer Systems (NIRVSS), NASA: NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide, methane and temperatures.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS), NASA: NIMLS will measure neutron radiation at the surface.
  • Neutron Spectrometer Systems (NSS), NASA: NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on the Lunar Surface (PILS), NASA: PILS will test of advanced solar arrays on the lunar surface.
  • Peregrine Ion-trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles, NASA: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere to understand the release and movement of volatiles.
  • Navigation Doppler LIDAR, NASA: NDL will determine Peregrine’s exact velocity and position to ensure a safe landing.
  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL), NASA: SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing.
  • Laser Rectro-reflector Array (LRA), NASA: LRA will reflect laser light from Earth to determine the exact location of the lander on the surface.
  • Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), Astrobotic Technology: A navigation sensor designed to allow for accurate landings on the moon.
  • M-42 Radiation Detector, German Aerospace Center: Instrument will measure radiation on the flight to the moon and on the surface.
  • The Arch Libraries, Arch Mission Foundation: Libraries of electronically archived materials.
  • Memorial Spaceflight, Celestis: Human ashes delivered to the moon.
  • Memorial Space Flight Services, Elysium Space: Human ashes delivered to the moon.
  • Moonark, Carnegie Mellon University: A set of intricately designed objects intended to spark wonderment and discovery by future generations.
  • Mementos to the Moon, DHL: A Moonbox containing small personal mementos.
  • Spacebit Plaque, Spacebit: Artwork created by Sacha Jafri.
  • Footsteps on the Moon, Lunar Mission One: Digital submissions from around the world.
  • Lunar Bitcoin, Bitmex Seychelles: A physical coin loaded with 1 bitcoin.
  • Memory of Mankind on the Moon, Puli Space Technologies: A plaque containing archival imagery and texts readable with a 10x magnifier.
  • Lunar Dream Capsule, Astroscale: A capsule with children’s messages from around the world.