NAU planetary scientist named key partner on NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer mission

Christopher Edwards

After a year of preliminary design and several reviews, NASA recently confirmed its Lunar Trailblazer mission will proceed to the final design and build phase. Selected in June 2019 with planned flight system delivery in October 2022, the Lunar Trailblazer mission targets one of the most surprising discoveries of the decade: the presence of water on the Moon.

The mission is a collaboration led by Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Other key partners include spacecraft provider Lockheed Martin, the University of Oxford, Northern Arizona University, Brown University and the University of Central Florida.

The relatively tiny Trailblazer satellite, which will measure just 3.5 meters in length with its solar panels fully deployed, will spend more than a year orbiting the Moon at a height of 100 kilometers, scanning it with two instruments on board. Christopher Edwards, assistant professor in NAU’s Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, will contribute to the instrumentation being developed for the satellite:  a visible-shortwave infrared imaging spectrometer built by JPL and a multispectral thermal imager built by the University of Oxford. NAU doctoral student Christian Tai Udovicic and postdoctoral scholar Jennifer Buz also will be involved in the project.

“We’re excited to pioneer NASA’s use of small satellites to answer big planetary science questions,” Ehlmann said. “By making detailed maps of water on the Moon we expect Trailblazer will hugely advance our understanding of something we don’t fully understand: the water cycle on airless bodies. Given the importance of water on the Moon for future robotic and human missions, the Lunar Trailblazer mission team is excited to provide the critical basemaps that will guide this future exploration.”

Edwards has been working with the Trailblazer team to link the measurements of the two instruments together and will help analyze data returned from the thermal infrared imager that can help constrain the physical nature of the upper lunar surface.

“Lunar Trailblazer has a talented, multi-institutional team whose collective effort resulted in a successful formulation phase and confirmation review,” said Calina Seybold, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “I am thrilled that the team has earned the privilege of continuing to our final design and fabrication phase.”

“Lunar Trailblazer is going to provide excellent datasets to help address critical questions in lunar exploration and we are excited to be involved with this unique new mission in NASA’s portfolio,” Edwards said.

“Some of the big questions about water on the Moon are: Does it vary as a function of time of day and temperature? Is it bound in rock or mobile? Why do some shadowed regions on the Moon host water ice while others are empty, and how much is there at the surface?” said Ehlmann. “We look forward to answering these questions with Lunar Trailblazer.”

Visit the Caltech website to learn more about the mission.

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