Getting To The Moon

Lunar Trailblazer is different from most planetary missions. Like its sister NASA SIMPLEx missions, Lunar Trailblazer is a “rideshare mission”. Kind of like choosing an Uber/Lyft-pool ride, NASA is taking advantage of the fact that most large missions launch with extra mass capacity on the rocket to bring material to space. To allow more spacecraft “seats” on the ride, launch providers use ESPA rings, a standard add-on with ports to host smaller spacecraft like Lunar Trailblazer.

Credit: Lockheed for Lunar Trailblazer

Here’s an ESPA ring and the standard volume available for a payload spacecraft. With its solar panels folded safely for launch, ~200-kg Lunar Trailblazer fits comfortably in ESPA volume. We link via a standard commercial-off-the-shelf part called a “lightband” (a Mark II Motorized lightband, to be exact). As per its proposal, Lunar Trailblazer will be finished with its build and have a full flight system ready for delivery to our launch provider at the end of 2022. We’ll be ready to go to the Moon!

Confirmed as IMAP (2025) Baseline

NASA is putting ESPA rings on most of its Science Mission Directorate (SMD) missions to enable small spacecraft. The first trick is trajectory and the second is timing. Only certain launches are useful to get to the Moon. Others head in the opposite direction. IMAP, the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, is a NASA SMD mission heading in the right direction, generally. IMAP is headed out to a Lagrange point, L1, a point of gravitational stability between the Earth and the Sun. IMAP’s science goals are focused on the acceleration of energetic particles and interaction of the solar wind with the local interstellar medium. NASA manifested Lunar Trailblazer as 1 of 4-5 secondary spacecraft riding along with IMAP on its scheduled February 2025 launch.

Along the way, about 2 hours out after launch, IMAP releases Lunar Trailblazer. Lunar Trailblazer then executes a series of maneuvers to make its way back to the Earth-Moon system over the next 6 months and inserts into lunar orbit, achieving its science orbit in approximately August 2025.


Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL for Lunar Trailblazer

What about a launch to the Moon?

There are quicker routes to the Moon, and it is an exciting time to be at the Moon! The Apollo missions made it in just a matter of days, of course. After the selection of Lunar Trailblazer, many other launches have been planned to the Moon as activity has picked up from the U.S., other nations, and commercial entities. With 1000 m/s delta-v in its prop system, Lunar Trailblazer can make it to the Moon from a variety of lunar orbit dropoffs or via trans lunar injection. Lunar Trailblazer was recently asked to prepare its requirements for a lunar orbital delivery. We’re pretty straightforward (standard interfaces and launch environment; need one heater)—Lunar Trailblazer's requirements are here. Should cost and procurement align for NASA (see article on early launch), we are happy to take the quick route to providing our data on lunar water and lunar landing sites to the world and pioneering science with SIMPLEx-class missions.