Back in July 2021, my wife and two kids dropped me off at work so I could pick up the LunaH-Map orbiter, pack it up into a case, board a plane and deliver it to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to be loaded onto the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

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LunaH-Map (Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper) is about the size of a large breakfast cereal box. It is a lunar orbiter that will be launched on the same rocket as the Artemis mission and will make maps of the water-ice across the Moon’s south pole.

LunaH-Map is unique. It has a body made primarily of a light aluminium alloy, with lots of holes to reduce its mass.

While its eyes are made of neutron sensitive crystals that burst with colour in the presence of a neutron or gamma ray, its solar panels absorb all the sunlight that touches them in order to create power.

Artist's impression of NASA's Space Launch System leaving Earth orbit on its way to the Moon. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of NASA's Space Launch System leaving Earth orbit on its way to the Moon. Credit: NASA

LunaH-Map communicates using a deep-space radio transceiver and gets around using heated iodine molecules, accelerated out from its back.

It’s not healthy to anthropomorphise a spacecraft too much, but LunaH-Map is almost the same size and weight as my real kids, so it’s hard not to make a comparison!

I felt like a proud dad when I took off the last ‘remove-before-flight’ plug and placed it into the SLS a year ago.

How the LunaH-Map mission came to be

Craig pictured with a model of the Moon and the LunaH-Map spacecraft. Photo courtesy of Arizona State University
Craig pictured with a model of the Moon and the LunaH-Map spacecraft. Photo: Arizona State University

The story of LunaH begins back in 2014, when I put in the proposal. I was four years out of my PhD and wondering why my career hadn’t taken off.

After several attempts at getting funding that went nowhere, I gave it one last-ditch effort – a complete planetary mission proposal from start to end.

The mission became LunaH-Map and to almost everyone’s surprise, it was selected by NASA for their Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration programme.

In the moments after I found this out I was both elated and terrified.

The mission had just a small per cent of a usual planetary budget, raising a host of questions about how we would pull it off.

A view of the lunar South Pole, centred on the Aitken Basin, as captuered by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. Credit: NASA/Goddard
A view of the lunar South Pole, centred on the Aitken Basin, as captuered by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. Credit: NASA/Goddard

I would love to say that I had answers to those questions, but in hindsight, I think it takes someone with less experience and a willingness to learn to drive missions forward in these scenarios.

All the technologies that enable LunaH-Map’s scientific measurements were developed over the past seven years, and the spacecraft was assembled in the clean rooms at Arizona State University in early 2021.

As LunaH-Map was a small mission with a small team, I’ve had to spend time handling not only the scientific aspects of the mission, but management, system engineering, navigation, operations, sub-contractor relationships and licensing – the list goes on.

lunah map spacecraft moon ice
Credit: Arizona State University

In some ways a new mission like this needed someone a bit naïve, and I’m happy to be the guinea pig for NASA as we figure out together how to make these very small, high-risk, high-reward missions a reality in the future.

All that said, I think we did a great job with the resources we had. The spacecraft we delivered to NASA is in great shape and is capable of completing its scientific mission at the Moon.

I could not be happier because, in a few short months, the LunaH-Map orbiter – strapped to a 5.75 million pound rocket capable of 8.8 million pounds of thrust – will be launched to the Moon, accelerating from Earth at over 4G.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Authors

lunah map craig hardgrove
Craig HardgrovePlanetary scientist

Craig Hardgrove is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University and the Principal Investigator of the LunaH-Map mission.

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