Craig Hardgrove: Hi. I’m Craig Hardgrove and I’m lead­ing a team of researchers that’s send­ing this space­craft to the moon. 

This isn’t a scaled-down ver­sion. This is the actu­al size of our space­craft. It’s called the Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper, or LunaH-Map for short. LunaH-Map will launch on one of the most pow­er­ful rock­ets ever built by NASA. And this tiny space­craft will pro­pel itself into lunar orbit using its own propul­sion sys­tem. And that’s a first for a space­craft this small. As with any first, it’s also very risky. I want to tell you about this mis­sion, why we’re going to the moon, and why it’s worth the risk. 

We’re send­ing LunaH-Map to the moon to sniff out just how much hydro­gen is beneath the sur­face. And we’re look­ing for hydro­gen because it’s a key com­po­nent of water. Water is geo­log­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing on the moon. How did it get there? It’s also impor­tant for future human explo­ration, since it could be used as fuel. The moon could be a jumping-off point for the rest of the solar sys­tem. But the moon is a harsh place. It bare­ly has any atmos­phere at all. The tem­per­a­ture can change by more than 100 degrees from day to night. And in that type of envi­ron­ment, any ice or water that’s hit by sun­light would imme­di­ate­ly be lost to space. 

But there’s a lot of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that sug­gests water ice could be present on the moon, but in spe­cial eternally-dark crater floors at the South Pole. These regions are in per­ma­nent shad­ow. They’re some of the cold­est places in the entire solar sys­tem. So that’s where LunaH-Map map is head­ed. LunaH-Map will car­ry a tiny sci­ence instru­ment called a neu­tron detec­tor, which is sen­si­tive to the low-energy neu­trons that are leak­ing out at the top meter of the moon’s sur­face. We can use that total num­ber of neu­trons to deter­mine how much hydro­gen is trapped below. And that too is some­thing that’s nev­er before been attempt­ed on a space­craft this small. 

But in order to improve upon the pre­vi­ous mea­sure­ments of ice at the moon’s South Pole, LunaH-Map needs to get very close. Really real­ly close. It turns out we need to be about thir­ty thou­sand feet above the sur­face of the moon, which is the typ­i­cal cruis­ing alti­tude for a com­mer­cial air­plane. And we need to make our mea­sure­ments while orbit­ing over the moon at about four thou­sand miles per hour. And that’s eight times faster than your typ­i­cal com­mer­cial air­plane. All of this, you guessed it, is a first for a space­craft this small. 

So you might rea­son­ably won­der where an auda­cious idea like a shoebox-sized space­craft capa­ble of doing all these things came from. About ten years ago a uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor want­ed to come up with class projects for his engi­neer­ing stu­dents. The idea was to have them build small, func­tion­al bench-top com­po­nents that might be used on a space­craft. But with the added engi­neer­ing chal­lenge of mak­ing them fit into a very tiny box. These were just stu­dent learn­ing tools and demon­stra­tions. So when think­ing about the dimen­sions of his tiny box, he decid­ed on a Beanie Baby box: ten cen­time­ters by ten cen­time­ters by ten cen­time­ters. He called them CubeSats. Surely he thought, some­thing this small would nev­er fly into space and nev­er actu­al­ly do any­thing useful. 

But as a stu­dent train­ing exer­cise, they were per­fect. The idea of CubeSats was a suc­cess. Universities across the coun­try adopt­ed CubeSats. And they became a suc­cess­ful teach­ing tool and devel­op­ment plat­form. Perhaps a lit­tle too suc­cess­ful. Because piece by piece, over the last ten years the com­po­nents that make up LunaH-Map have been devel­oped at or in part­ner­ship with uni­ver­si­ties, their fac­ul­ty, their stu­dents, and staff. Over the years if stu­dents were lucky enough, their CubeSats would be launched into low-Earth orbit to test their designs in space. And they wound up not just test­ing designs but devel­op­ing new, minia­tur­ized space­craft technologies. 

Eventually, uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents devel­oped radios, instru­ments, reac­tion wheels, propul­sion sys­tems, and many oth­er com­po­nents. Until some­one asked a real­ly good ques­tion: don’t all these com­po­nents put togeth­er make up an inter­plan­e­tary space­craft? And they do. As long as we accept the inher­ent risk of using any new tech­nol­o­gy. Take a dif­fer­ent indus­try from our own lives, for exam­ple: smart­phones. No one gives up on smart­phones entire­ly if there are bugs in the first ver­sion. New tech­nol­o­gy always improves over time, but the first ver­sion is a lit­tle risky. And there’s a fun­ny thing that hap­pens when you start accept­ing risk and accept­ing a lot of it. With a risky space­craft, you can do risky things. Things you would­n’t nor­mal­ly do on a typ­i­cal big NASA mis­sion that takes decades to design, build, and fly. Think about it. Would you risk your space­craft after a decade of work? It’s not like­ly. But with short­er devel­op­ment times, small­er teams, low­er costs, it actu­al­ly allows you to embrace risk, and hope­ful­ly reap the rewards. In fact I’d argue that this is fun­da­men­tal to what makes tiny mis­sions like these worth doing. 

You may remem­ber probe droids from Star Wars. Expendable robots deployed to cap­ture unique, hard-to-get data about say a rebel base. Imagine if we had a dozen or more tiny probes on every NASA mis­sion. They could fly low over the icy sur­face of Europa, trans­mit valu­able data from the atmos­phere of Venus on descent, just before being crushed by the intense atmos­pher­ic pres­sure. These probes can act as inter­plan­e­tary scouts, deploy­ing from a pri­ma­ry space­craft, maneu­ver­ing to inter­sect with aster­oids that no space­craft has ever before vis­it­ed. And these are just a few exam­ples of the type of risky but highly-rewarding mis­sions that these tiny probes might take on as we ven­ture out fur­ther into the solar system. 

Now risk is a part of all of our lives. And it can be scary. But very few rewards come with­out risk. Personally I chose to pur­sue this mis­sion as a post-doc at ASU. It’s uncom­mon to give a moon mis­sion to some­one who is essen­tial­ly fresh out of their PhD. But despite the risks, I put every­thing I had into it, I devot­ed many months of pulling togeth­er our team and work­ing on the pro­pos­al. And our team despite the risks put every­thing they had into it too. I’ll be hon­est we all knew the chances of suc­cess were low. And the risk of fail­ing was high. But the rewards were even high­er. And that’s what kept and keeps us going. 

It should sound famil­iar: high risk, high reward. The con­cept of these tiny space­craft is some­thing that we all tru­ly believe in. It rep­re­sents a vision of a future world that we want to live in, where space is more acces­si­ble than ever, and to many more peo­ple than ever before. And that makes the risk of work­ing on LunaH-Map worth it. I would­n’t have done any­thing else. And the best part is I get to lead this vision­ary team of peo­ple and work with col­leagues every day who believe in it, too. Thanks.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.