NASA moves up Lunar Trailblazer launch

WASHINGTON — NASA has found a new ride for a small lunar orbiter mission that will allow the spacecraft to avoid a two-year wait for its launch.

In a June 21 presentation to the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Lori Glaze, NASA planetary science division director, said the Lunar Trailblazer mission will now launch as a secondary payload on the second lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, called IM-2 and part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. That mission will launch in about a year, she said.

Lunar Trailblazer was previously manifested to launch as one of several rideshare payloads on NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission, currently scheduled for no earlier than early 2025. That schedule was driven by development of IMAP itself, with Lunar Trailblazer expected to be completed by early 2023.

“We have removed Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP manifest so that it can fly sooner,” Glaze said. She didn’t elaborate on the process by which NASA decided to move Lunar Trailblazer from the IMAP launch to IM-2, but later said that the agency’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program “decided to accommodate that additional cost” of launching on IM-2 rather than staying on IMAP.

“Our Lunar Trailblazer project is pleased that NASA has planned a launch for Lunar Trailblazer in 2023 to get Lunar Trailblazer’s high-resolution water ice maps to the science and communities exploration to understand the lunar water cycle and inform future landed missions,” Bethany Ehlmann, the Caltech professor who is the principal investigator for Lunar Trailblazer, told SpaceNews.

The lunar science community had been pushing NASA to find an earlier ride for Lunar Trailblazer once it became clear that the mission would be ready for launch long before IMAP. Glaze said in early 2021 that the agency was looking for alternative opportunities to launch the mission but would keep the mission on IMAP until it could find one.

Lunar Trailblazer is equipped with a spectrometer and thermal mapper to study the distribution of water on the moon, information that could support future robotic and human missions. Ehlmann said the spacecraft passed its systems integration review in May and is scheduled to be completed in early 2023.

The mission was one of three NASA selected in 2019 as part of its Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program of small planetary science missions, with cost caps of $55 million and use of rideshare launch opportunities. All three have run into issues with their launches.

Another SIMPLEx mission, Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), was originally expected to launch with NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission to study the interaction of the Martian atmosphere with the solar wind. However, NASA removed EscaPADE from that mission After NASA selected a Falcon Heavy to launch Psyche, changing its trajectory in such a way it could no longer be dropped off at Mars during a flyby. A redesigned EscaPADE is now moving forward but has not yet been assigned a launch.

Janus, a mission featuring a twin small spacecraft that would study binary asteroids, is also scheduled to launch with Psyche as a rideshare. However, a delay in the launch of Psyche from early August to no earlier than Sept. 20 means that Janus will no longer be able to use its original trajectory for flybys of two binary asteroids.

At the Planetary Science Advisory Committee, Joan Salute, program executive in NASA’s planetary science division, said the Janus mission team was still potential alternative targets for the spacecraft if it launches in the new window. “They’re dedicated to getting as much science as they can, whenever they launch,” she said.

Those problems prompted discussion at the committee meeting on ways to improve launch opportunities for small missions like those in the SIMPLEx program. Glaze noted such missions are categorized by the agency as “Class D,” which accepts a greater degree of risk and must fit into a cost cap that, in turn, drives the use of rideshares.

NASA is looking for ways to improve the rideshare process, though, for such missions, including creation of a rideshare office within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to coordinate such opportunities.

NASA is also looking at low-cost dedicated launch options for small science missions through its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program, which awarded contracts to 12 companies in January that makes them eligible to compete for future task orders. “We have not made specific plans to make use of that,” Salute said of VADR, “but that is another avenue opening up.”

Lunar Trailblazer will not be the first NASA mission to hitch a ride on a CLPS launch. Lunar Flashlight is a cubesat originally scheduled to launch on the first Space Launch System mission, Artemis 1. However, problems with its propulsion system kept it from being delivered in time last summer to be integrated onto the rocket.

At a lunar science workshop in May, Barbara Cohen, a Lunar Flashlight scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said the spacecraft was now scheduled to launch as a secondary payload on the IM-1 lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, slated for no earlier than late this year.