Artistic view of Lunar Trailblazer.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

There is big science via small satellites to help appreciate the lunar water cycle – how it forms, its abundance, and location related to geology.

To help find the answers, high on the launch list is Lunar Trailblazer, a mission selected under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program.

Last month, it passed a Key Decision Point-C milestone, obtaining NASA endorsement to begin final design of hardware and build. Its launch is currently planned for February 2025 and is slated to get a ride on NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission.

The flight system delivery is October 2022. NASA is also investigating potential for an earlier ride for the spacecraft, Ehlmann told Inside Outer Space.

“Passing this key decision point means we have the green flag to proceed with production on the spacecraft. I’m very excited to see all the big science this compact spacecraft will surely bring back to us,” said Joshua Wood, Lockheed Martin Lunar Trailblazer program manager.

Lockheed Martin Space will build and integrate the Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft at its Waterton facility, located near Denver, Colorado.

Artist’s rendering of water ice in the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions.
Credit: Hongyu Cui

Reflect on this

Peering into the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions, Lunar Trailblazer will detect signatures of ice in reflected light, and it will pinpoint the locations of micro-cold traps less than a football field in size.

Collecting measurements at multiple times of day over sunlit regions, the mission will help scientists understand whether the water signature on the illuminated surface changes as the lunar surface temperature changes by hundreds of degrees over the course of a lunar day.

By measuring both direct light and low levels of terrain-scattered light, Lunar Trailblazer will generate comprehensive maps of surface water ice, even in the Moon’s darkest regions.

Credit: NASA

Scanning the landscape

The Lunar Trailblazer satellite will measure just under 12 feet (3.5 meters) in length with its solar panels fully deployed. The craft will spend over a year orbiting the Moon at a height of 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the lunar landscape, scanning it with two instruments: a visible-shortwave infrared imaging spectrometer built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a multispectral thermal imager built by the University of Oxford.

Helping to answer big planetary science questions with a small satellite gets a thumbs up by Bethany Ehlmann, the mission’s principal investigator, of Caltech.

“Given the importance of water on the Moon for future robotic and human missions, Lunar Trailblazer will provide critical basemaps to guide future exploration,” Ehlmann said in a NASA statement.

For more information on NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer mission, visit:

Also go to my Scientific American story on the search for water resources on the Moon at:

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