Humans are returning to the Moon and this time, they're planning to stay longer. NASA's upcoming 2024 Artemis mission aims to set up a sustainable presence of astronauts on the Moon, and one that might launch astronauts to Mars.
Future astronauts need to pack the right tools that will help them fend for themselves on the lunar surface. And if the right tools don't exist, NASA had to invent them.
That's why NASA is sending Lunar Flashlights to the Moon to hunt for icy water deposits.
The Lunar Flashlight is in the form of a CubeSat, a small satellite about the size of a briefcase, and will be used to shine a light on the Moon's dark craters that are spread out across its bumpy surface.
Previous investigations have proved that these craters have one very valuable resource, water. In 2018, NASA confirmed that ancient deposits of ice can be found in the Moon's dark craters at its southern and northern poles.
And that's exactly what the astronauts are after. Water is not only an important resource for astronauts' daily activities like drinking and showering, but it could also be used to make propellant fuel for spacecraft.
In order to find the water, the Lunar Flashlight was designed to detect surface ice at the bottom of craters on the Moon. The Lunar Flashlight will scan the Moon's South Pole over a period of two months, swooping in at low altitudes to shine its lasers into the craters and probe for surface ice, according to NASA.
"A technology demonstration mission like Lunar Flashlight, which is lower cost and fills a specific gap in our knowledge, can help us better prepare for an extended NASA presence on the Moon as well as test key technologies that may be used in future missions," John Baker, Lunar Flashlight project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
The Lunar Flashlight has a four-laser reflectometer, which will use near-infrared wavelengths that are readily absorbed by water to identify ice hidden within the craters. That means, if the laser reflects back to the spacecraft, then there's no water and it's just bare rock. However, if the light is absorbed, then that means there is a layer of icy water hidden on the lunar surface.
The more the light is absorbed, the more ice there may be on the surface.
Therefore, the Lunar Flashlight will not only aid the astronauts on their mission to the Moon, it will also provide scientists with valuable information on how much water could be frozen on the lunar surface.
"We will also be able to compare the Lunar Flashlight data with the great data that we already have from other Moon-orbiting missions to see if there are correlations in signatures of water ice, thereby giving us a global view of surface ice distribution," Barbara Cohen, principal investigator of the mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.
The Lunar Flashlight will launch onboard Artemis I, slated for a 2021 launch date. Artemis I kicks off the entire mission, but there will be no humans onboard this spacecraft. Instead, Artemis I is an uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft that will eventually take humans to the Moon.