When NASA finally gets around to sending an unmanned rocket to Mars in 2018, it will carry along this blinding laser flashlight in its payload as part of an exploratory tool box to deploy along the way. Intended to be used in one of 13 different experiments initiated during the Space Launch System's planned rendezvous with the Red Planet, these “cube satellite” missions will be unleashed along the route to various destinations—one toward Asteroid 1991BG, several to our moon, and others sent to drift out into the cosmic tides of deep space.
Named the "Lunar Flashlight," this low-cost orbiter and solar sail's purpose is to train its highly concentrated laser at the lunar landscape as it flies above the moon's polar sector, scanning it for prospective water and eventually giving scientists a comprehensive map of precisely where to find water sources.
“In a future mission, we’d have to live off the land,” Jitendra Joshi, head of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, explained during a press conference. “This map could help find good sites for that.”
Here's the Jet Propulsion Labs' data on this bright idea being brought aboard the SLS's mission in July 2018:
Lunar Flashlight is an exciting new mission concept that was recently selected by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) by a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UCLA, and Marshall Space Flight Center. Planned to launch on the SLS EM-1 flight, this innovative, low-cost secondary payload concept will map the lunar south pole for volatiles and demonstrate several technological firsts, including being the first CubeSat to reach the Moon, the first planetary cubesat mission to use green propulsion, and the first mission to use lasers to look for water ice.
Locating ice deposits in the Moon’s permanently shadowed craters addresses one of NASA’s Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) to detect composition, quantity, distribution, form of water/H species and other volatiles associated with lunar cold traps. The scientific and economic importance of lunar volatiles extends far beyond the question “is there water on the Moon?” Volatile materials including water come from sources central to NASA’s strategic plans, including comets, asteroids, interplanetary dust particles, interstellar molecular clouds, solar wind, and lunar volcanic and radiogenic gases. The volatile inventory, distribution, and state (bound or free, evenly distributed or blocky, on the surface or at depth, etc.) are crucial for understanding how these molecules interact with the lunar surface, and for utilization potential.
The Lunar Flashlight mission spacecraft maneuvers to its lunar polar orbit and uses its near infrared lasers to shine light into the shaded polar regions, while the on-board spectrometer measures surface reflection and composition. The Lunar Flashlight 6U spacecraft has heritage elements from predecessor systems including JPL’s INSPIRE and JPL’s experience with imaging spectrometers, including the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3). The mission will demonstrate a path where 6U CubeSats could, at dramatically lower cost than previously thought possible, explore, locate and estimate size and composition of ice deposits on the Moon. It is a game-changing capability for expanded human exploration, planetary science, heliophysics, and other relevant instrument applications.
Polar volatile data collected by Lunar Flashlight could then ensure that future exploration targets for more expensive lander- and rover-borne measurements would include volatiles in sufficient quantity and near enough to the surface to potentially be operationally useful.