Of Particular Significance

In Brief: Unfortunate News from the Moon

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 11/24/2022

Sadly, the LunaH-MAP mini-satellite (or “CubeSat”) that I wrote about a couple of days ago, describing how it would use particle physics to map out the water-ice in lunar soil, has had a serious setback and may not be able to carry out its mission. A stuck valve is the most likely reason that its thruster did not fire when instructed to do so, and so it has sailed past the Moon instead of going into the correct orbit. There’s still some hope that the situation can be salvaged, but it will take some luck. I feel badly for the scientists involved, who worked so hard and now face great disappointment.

In fact at least four and perhaps five of the ten CubeSats launched along with NASA’s Artemis mission have apparently failed in one way or another. This includes the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout and Team Miles, both of which were intended to test and use new technologies for space travel but with whom communication has not been established, and OMOTENASHI, which is intended to study the particle physics environment around the Moon and land a mini-craft on the surface, but which has had communication issues and will not be able to deploy its lander. It’s not clear what’s happening with Lunar-IR either.

One has to wonder whether this very high failure rate is due to the long delays suffered by the Artemis mission. The original launch date was at the end of August; batteries do degrade, and even satellites designed for the rigors of outer space can suffer in Florida’s heat and moisture.

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14 Responses

      1. Well, in any case it seems a very interesting paper, with a very curious author list. The problem is that they are bringing many long threads together here, and it might take five to ten blog posts to really explain it; you have to know about quantum mechanics, about the gauge/string (AdS/CFT) duality and why it works, some details about black holes, and then wormholes, and what it means for a wormhole to be traversable, and how wormholes (traversable and non-traversable) are related by gauge/string duality to quantum communication. And then there’s making a toy model out of all of it using the SYK quantum system, and explaining why it’s a good model for some purposes, and the extent to which it isn’t. I can do it, but it’s a big commitment once I start, and I can’t promise I have the time to follow through on it right now. Let me talk to my colleague Daniel Jafferis, the young genius behind this whole thing, first; maybe he can suggest some shortcuts. Hopefully I’ll overlap with him next week.

  1. The question is only one: never put all your eggs in a one basket. Hence the success or failure of 50% of the devices. Dear teacher, as a expert mathematician, analyze only the statistics of success or eventual failures, still attention on the minuscule size of each device, extremely reduced in control capabilities. Statistics will give you all the answers that you need. No surprise.

  2. Matt Strassler, thank you for this update. Failures in space missions are always tough for the scientists, many of whom have invested years on such projects, and hoped to spend years more seeing the rewards of their work. The risk is always there, and anyone working with space launches knows it. But that does not make worst-case scenarios any easier to handle.

    Your analysis of the battery issue is very apt. It’s notable that great attention was paid to flight-related batteries. Payload batteries are a far more difficult issue, since their accessibility is far less and in some cases impossible without essentially disassembling and restarting the entire mission. Payload designers are of course aware of the risks of mission delays, but taking that fully into account becomes a complicated risk/reward profile. In some cases, the technologies needed to make payload risks negligible — especially, as you noted, for batteries — simply do not exist.

    piyabut, please be aware that Matt Strassler’s WordPress page is not Twitter or one of the other advertising-focused media platforms where people focus first on evoking emotional reactions, and thus clicks, without considering whether their words reflect reality accurately. I’m old enough to have watched the first moon landing live, and I’ve been nothing but extremely impressed with both the technology, risk handling, and personnel support of missions in recent years.

  3. Thanks for the update. It’s a very sad circumstance. Hope they are able to hitch a ride on the next launch.

  4. Curiously, India and China had no problems in exploring these frontiers, Moon is like China backyard. I strongly feel that it is time for NASA to reconsider its engineers and scientists qualification. They basically suck, extremely.

    1. I think your analysis is a little thin. First of all, as far as I know, none of the CubeSats were built entirely by NASA. Some of the delays to Artemis weren’t NASA’s fault; there were two hurricanes. A lot of the problems with Artemis are perhaps from Boeing, which has indeed suffered terribly as a company in the last fifteen years; it’s had huge reliability problems with its planes, cf. the 737 Max. And finally, NASA-related engineers have had many successes landing on and exploring Mars. In addition they’ve had many successful missions at other planets and asteroids as well. India and China are still very far behind. So when you say “they basically suck, extremely” — well, that seems a little ridiculous.

      1. The 747 Max disaster revealed Boeing was being run by bean counters rather than its engineering division. Like Airbus, the 747 Max, should have been a new design.

        Although it might be premature to blame this latest failure on Boeing, I suspect the company still has a lot of work to do to recover its lost culture.

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