In a significant stride towards lunar exploration, NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer mission is nearing its launch date. This pioneering venture, set to blast off no earlier than 2024, aims to probe the moon’s surface for water, mapping its abundance and distribution. The Lockheed Martin-built Lunar Trailblazer satellite, relatively compact at just 11.5 feet wide and weighing around 440 pounds, will embark on this mission as part of a yet-to-be-determined rideshare journey along with the Intuitive Machines IM-2 mission.
The Lunar Trailblazer satellite has been armed with state-of-the-art equipment to facilitate its lunar exploration. The recently fitted Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM) sensor, crafted by the University of Oxford, will employ infrared light to map the moon’s surface temperature and mineral variations. This data will pinpoint potential locations where water might exist. The LTM joins the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3), installed in 2021, which will detect possible water on the lunar surface by measuring sunlight wavelengths reflected off the moon. With these instruments on board, the Lunar Trailblazer mission is set to revolutionize our understanding of lunar water presence and distribution.
NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer: A Leap Forward in Moon Exploration
NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer mission, a Lockheed Martin-built satellite, is gearing up for launch. The compact satellite, measuring 11.5 feet wide and weighing around 440 pounds, is set to embark on its journey no earlier than 2024. The mission’s primary objective is to search for water on the moon’s surface and map its distribution and abundance.
The Lunar Thermal Mapper
The Lunar Trailblazer recently received its second instrument, the Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM), manufactured by the University of Oxford, England. The LTM is designed to utilize infrared light to map the moon’s surface temperature and variations in the minerals that make up the lunar surface. This innovative sensor will enable the satellite to pinpoint lunar locations where water might be present.
Neil Bowles, a physicist at the University of Oxford, praised the team’s efforts, especially in light of the recent pandemic challenges. He stated that "the data from the mission will help us to understand how water is transported across the surface and potentially captured in cold traps near the lunar poles, allowing follow-up from future human robotic exploration."
High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper
The Lunar Trailblazer is also equipped with the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3), developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. This instrument, installed on the satellite in 2021, is designed to measure the wavelengths of sunlight reflected off the moon to detect the chemical fingerprint of potential lunar water.
Libby Jackson, Head of Space Exploration at the UK Space Agency, shared her excitement about the mission, stating that it "will bring us fascinating insight into the nature of water on the moon, which will improve our understanding of our natural satellite and how we could harness its resources to support exploration in the future."
A Global Effort
The Lunar Trailblazer is only one of the many probes and landers heading to the moon in the global quest for water ice that could support future crewed missions. NASA’s LunaH-Map cubesat and ShadowCam aboard the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter are already mapping potential landing sites. Meanwhile, Russia’s Luna-25 mission and India’s Chandrayaan-3 are expected to land on the moon this month to join the hunt for lunar water.
The Lunar Trailblazer mission marks a significant step forward in our understanding of the moon’s resources. The successful identification and mapping of water on the moon could open up new possibilities for sustainable space exploration and habitation. As nations around the world join the search for lunar water, it’s clear that the race to unlock the moon’s potential is well and truly underway.