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New ASU technology could aid in NASA’s 2024 moon-landing mission

The LunaH-Map mission will launch in November 2021 to search for water ice on the moon


"The ASU device will orbit Earth in the CubeSat in preparation to later reach the moon." Illustration published on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

An ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration professor's technology for detecting water ice, or hydrogen, on the moon debuted as part of the recently launched Neutron-1 3U CubeSat mission. 

Water ice, or lunar water, is the first evidence that water could exist on the moon and was confirmed to be on the moon by NASA in 2018.

Principal investigator on the project and professor Craig Hardgrove, along with an ASU team, developed a neutron detector that will be integrated with the Neutron-1 3U CubeSat mission led by Lloyd French, a program manager for University of Hawaii at Manoa and co-founder of the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory.

The neutron detector allows researchers to map neutron abundances in low earth orbit as part of the LunaH-Map mission. The detector will also assist in UHM's mission to study neutrons while testing its own efficacy for its intended mission.

The LunaH-Map satellite will orbit the moon in search of water ice sources on its surface. The CubeSat mission helps pave the way for LunaH-Map's next year. 

The CubeSat mission will orbit the Earth to study neutrons with the assistance of Hardgrove's device. The neutron detector allows Hardgrove and his team to map neutron abundances in low earth orbit as part of the LunaH-Map mission, which helps researchers map current and future environments.

“Over the last decade or more NASA has identified these regions on the moon that have enrichments of ice, and neutron detectors play an important part in identifying the poles as the really special regions for where the ice is concentrated,” Hardgrove said. 

The LunaH-map will fly close to the surface of the moon and map distribution of water ice trapped within the south pole’s shadowed regions. This water ice could be used as fuel through a process called electrolysis for NASA’s Artemis mission to land astronauts on the moon in 2024, according to Hardgrove.

Hardgrove said the three-year collaboration was built when NASA told UHM they would give them a launch opportunity if the team built another CubeSat.

Hardgrove and his team found that working on the CubeSat mission moved their development ahead because it has fewer constraints than the LunaH-Map satellite.

The CubeSat is heavily stocked with technology to communicate with researchers on Earth. The spacecraft is said to deploy in late November or early December, and it will send data to determine if the neutron detector is functioning properly. When it arrives in its orbit some time between January and February 2021, the CubeSat will then begin sending neutron data to researchers.

The duration of the mission remains unknown because the spacecraft doesn’t have a propulsion system.

CubeSat successfully launched from the NG-14 rocket as part of a ride-share with the International Space Station resupply mission from NASA at the Wallops Flight Facility on Oct. 2. 

“We were very excited for our accomplishment and very relieved to finally launch Neutron-l (CubeSat) into space,” French said in an email.

French and the UHM team are working on various tasks before deployment from space station in November.

“We are now gearing up for science and amateur operations on orbit," French wrote. "The first step is to assess our ground stations for performance and upgrade hardware and software as needed."

Hardgrove’s team is now in the middle testing for the LunaH-Map spacecraft mission to deliver to NASA in February. 

“The team is excited to have the instrument collect data and get that extra validation that the LunaH-Map mission has a better chance of being successful when we launch in hopefully late next year,” Hardgrove said.

The LunaH-map has a scheduled launch for November 2021 where it will take six months to reach the moon. 

The LunaH-map and CubeSat mission can help lower the costs and barriers of space exploration if proven successful, Hardgrove said.

“Both Neutron-1(CubeSat) and LunaH-Map use commercial off-the-shelf parts to achieve their missions. These parts come from new spacecraft component providers,” Hardgrove said.

School of Earth and Space Exploration students can also join the research, according to Meenakshi Wadhwa, director and professor for the SESE.

“In addition to the hand-on experience that helps to develop their technical skills, our students also learn how to work effectively as part of multidisciplinary teams,” Wadhwa said in an email. 

Hardgrove said many students who were involved in the research projects have graduated to full-time jobs with companies like JPL, Raytheon and Boeing.

“Quite a few of the students that we’ve had have been Fulton engineering students like mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers or electrical engineers that have gotten hands-on experience working with the hardware,” Hardgrove said. 

Hardgrove said the team will be looking for more student support starting next year, and students don't require any specific training to apply. 

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