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 space craft 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.


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