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ASU-led LunaH-Map spacecraft safely delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center

July 20, 2021

The ASU-led team that built NASA’s Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or “LunaH-Map” for short, has safely delivered their spacecraft to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for a launch expected later this year on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Artemis I rocket.

LunaH-Map is a fully functional interplanetary spacecraft about the size of a large cereal box and weighing about 30 pounds. It is the first mission to be led, designed, assembled, integrated, tested and delivered from the ASU Tempe campus. Its destination is in orbit around the moon, from which it will map water-ice in permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole.

To start its journey from ASU to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, first the spacecraft was placed in a doubly sealed, nitrogen-filled, electrostatic-safe bag. It was then carefully placed into a crushproof and dustproof foam-lined case. 

LunaH-Map ready for transport from the ASU Tempe campus to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Left to right: Joe DuBois, Nathaniel Struebel, Craig Hardgrove and Tyler O'Brien. Image credit: ASU

Four tickets from Phoenix to Orlando were purchased on a commercial airline, three for the human members of the LunaH-Map team and one for the spacecraft, which was placed in the middle seat between two team members.

Once the LunaH-Map team arrived at Kennedy Space Center, they unpacked the spacecraft, checked to make sure it had not been jostled or collected any dust or debris during transport, and took photos for documentation. After installing a set of handles and carefully removing the “Remove Before Flight” cover plates, they slid the spacecraft into the flight dispenser that will launch with the SLS rocket. Then, the door to the flight dispenser was carefully closed and latched.

“From there, we handed the operation over to NASA,” said LunaH-Map Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor Craig Hardgrove of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration who, along with AZ Space Technologies Mechanical Lead Nathaniel Struebel and Qwaltec Operations Lead Patrick Hailey, transported the spacecraft to its destination in Florida.

When Artemis I launches later this year, including LunaH-Map, there will be around a dozen small spacecraft, called CubeSats, onboard. These will be the secondary payloads on the Artemis I mission.

The primary mission of Artemis I is testing NASA’s Space Launch System, which is designed to lift more than any existing launch vehicle. The rocket will also transport the Orion spacecraft, which will perform a lunar flyby and return to Earth and which, on future missions, will carry human crews to space. The ring that connects Orion to SLS has room for the CubeSat payloads, which will be sent into deep space during the mission.

Once Artemis I is launched and LunaH-Map is deployed, the spacecraft will use a series of lunar fly-bys and its ion propulsion system to enter the lunar orbit. Once it reaches low altitude, it will begin its scientific mission to measure the abundance of hydrogen within permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole, using a new type of compact neutron spectrometer.

While we know from decades of lunar exploration that there are water ice enrichments in certain regions around the poles of our moon, LunaH-Map will seek to determine how much and where these enrichments are. They may contain enough water to change our view of the formation and evolution of moon, or they may contain enough water to support future human and robotic exploration of the solar system.

The total mission will last about a year and the spacecraft will perform nearly 300 orbits of the moon. During this time, LunaH-Map will be operated from the mission operations center in Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 on the ASU Tempe campus where the spacecraft was built. The team will communicate directly with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Deep Space Network to send commands that will be transmitted to the spacecraft.

"Delivery of the spacecraft to NASA and the Artemis program represents an enormous achievement that is the culmination of years of dedicated work by the ASU LunaH-Map team and our many vendor and contractor partners nationwide,” said LunaH-Map Deputy Principal Investigator Jim Bell, who is a planetary scientist and professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It's a milestone achievement for ASU overall and will help pave the way for many similarly exciting future CubeSat missions for ASU students, faculty and staff."

LunaH-Map Principal Investigator Craig Hardgrove with the spacecraft flying to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Image credit: ASU

With Hardgrove and Bell, the LunaH-Map team includes many ASU staff and students, representatives from two local Tempe engineering firms — AZ Space Technologies and Qwaltec — and representatives from other U.S. commercial space companies and NASA centers. The spacecraft includes a top plate with signatures of those who worked on LunaH-Map and the names of friends and family.

Now that the spacecraft has been delivered, the team will use the spacecraft engineering model, located at ASU, to develop and test the spacecraft activities that will be needed once LunaH-Map is in flight. This model includes all the components on the flight spacecraft just delivered to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

“LunaH-Map, and all the other Artemis I CubeSats, are paving the way for a new type of space exploration mission that leverages the strengths of pairing a professional engineering staff with university staff and students,” Hardgrove said. “These missions are some of the first to test new technologies required for very small spacecraft to complete science missions in deep space.”

Following the success of these missions, Hardgrove sees a future for CubeSats to be increasingly involved in high-risk, high-reward science missions, paired with larger NASA spacecraft. In this capacity, they can be sent out to unexplored regions of the solar system, perform independent maneuvers and collect science data too risky for the primary mission to acquire.

Top photo: The LunaH-Map spacecraft, which is a CubeSat about the size of a large cereal box, is ASU’s first NASA mission to be led, designed and built on the ASU Tempe campus. Credit: ASU

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager , School of Earth and Space Exploration


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ASU search for water on moon seeks important answers

ASU search for water on the moon seeks answers to tough geologic questions.
ASU scientist explains research behind groundbreaking NASA mission.
January 17, 2017

Researcher Craig Hardgrove explains science behind NASA mission that marked university as major player in space exploration

Arizona State University’s NASA mission to visit a metal asteroid is just beginning, but the first mission that marked the school as a major player in space exploration has been under way for more than a year.

LunaH-Map, the Lunar Hydrogen Polar Mapper, will launch in September 2018. Its task will be to find water and ice at the south pole of the moon, and map the deposits.

ASU Now spoke with principal investigator Craig Hardgrove, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration about the science behind the mission, what will be built on its discoveries, and why there isn’t a hockey rink buried on the moon.

Why look for water and ice on the moon? It can be used for fuel and drinking water in the push to Mars, saving an enormous amount of space and payload weight on spacecraft.

“That’s the geologic question we’re trying to answer about the moon: how much (water and ice) is there on a moderate spatial scale, so we can send a rover and really get at how much water is there,” Hardgrove said.

Scientists aren’t sure about how water and ice appear on the moon. It is likely deposited by two things: solar wind or passing asteroids and comets. Protons from solar wind are implanted into the lunar surface, then they combine with an electron to form a hydrogen atom. The hydrogen atom binds with oxygen and forms hydroxyl atoms.

Asteroids and comets carry water. “Those are dirty ice balls, basically,” Hardgrove said, carrying 50 to 80 percent water. As they get close to the sun, they shed water.

“Those could be passing by, depositing water on bodies like the moon,” he said. “So maybe that’s the explanation for why it’s enriched in certain regions and not others.”

LunaH Map will carry a neutron counter. As it flies over the south pole of the moon, it measures neutrons that leak from the moon’s surface. There’s a base number of counts you’d expect for a dry moon: around 50 parts per million water.

“Very, very dry,” Hardgrove remarked. “At the pole, it’s maybe 200, up to 500 parts per million and in some small regions we know that it’s 5000 to 50,000 parts per million, it’s really enriched. We just don’t know exactly where those regions are.”

No one knows where the hydrogen is, or how much of it is there. And is it all implanted by solar wind? It’s an important geologic question. If it is, maybe the small amounts of hydrogen at the poles have moved around somehow, possibly by meteorite impacts. Maybe the moon’s poles have moved throughout geologic time. Scientists aren’t sure, but hydrogen gets remobilized and concentrated in permanently shadowed craters at the poles.

No one knows how much is there. Hardgrove suspects it’s on the order of a couple hundred parts per million. There isn’t a good answer for why you would get 5,000 parts per million or 50,000 parts per million. That’s around five percent water – a lot for the moon. Certain parts of Mars have that much water – the north pole of Mars is pure ice – but the moon isn’t Mars, and no one knows how that much water appears on the moon.

How would you find out whether the water came from an asteroid or comet, or somehow was inherent to the moon? A rover would have to collect samples and analyze isotope ratios with a mass spectrometer.

The maps LunaH Map will create may be used by NASA to decide where to land a rover to do exactly that.

“We’re talking about identifying regions that are several kilometers wide where hydrogen is enriched,” Hardgrove said. “And then NASA could plan for future missions where you want to land your rover, because now we’re on the scale of the landing ellipse. NASA will know that the hydrogen is somewhere in that patch of ground.”

That mission, called Resource Prospector, is already in the planning stages. It’s going to have to be one of the toughest rovers ever built, because it’s going to dip its toe into one of the coldest places in the solar system, places which have never, ever seen sunlight. Think as low as -400 degrees below Fahrenheit.

Electronics and hardware may not be able to survive. The rover will carry the same instrument LunaH Map will: a neutron detector. What the rover would do is land in the illuminated areas and do what NASA calls “toe dips” into the darkness.

“Resource Prospector could toe dip in, scoop and come back out and do the analysis,” Hardgrove said. “But they’re worried that if they take that sample out, all of the water, if it’s in there, it’s just going to sublimate immediately. So then they have to do their analysis in the dark to figure out how much is actually there, or seal it up somehow. It’s a difficult problem to figure out how to assess what’s really down there, just because it’s some of the coldest parts of the solar system.”

Any ice down there would be bound up somehow with the regolith, the loose dust, dirt, and rock covering the bedrock. It would have to be extracted for human use with some kind of refining process. It won’t be like chipping ice off a cliff and melting it on a winter camping trip. And, while golf has been played on the moon, it is unlikely hockey will enjoy the same privilege.

“We don’t think it’s like an ice skating rink or anything,” Hardgrove said. “That would be a very different method for moon formation than anything we’re familiar with.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News