Texas Tech University

NASA Picks Geosciences Faculty Member's Instrument for Moon Landing

Glenys Young

July 2, 2019

In 'a dream come true,' Seiichi Nagihara will build the lunar heat flow probe he's been designing for years, then watch it in action.

Texas Tech University's Seiichi Nagihara has been working for more than a decade to design an instrument that could sit on the surface of the moon and accurately measure the amount of heat coming out from its interior. Now, thanks to a nod from NASA, Nagihara will actually get to build his instrument and watch it in action.

A photo of the LISTER prototype built at Honeybee Robotics earlier this year. It is about the size of a shoebox. In this photo, it is resting sideways. When integrated into the lander, the right side points down. Courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

Through a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), NASA is contracting with private companies to build and fly unmanned spacecraft to put landers on the moon. In its first round earlier this year, NASA contracted with nine companies, three of which are expected to fly within the next three years. Instruments being built in NASA's research centers were the first group selected to go to the moon on these missions.

NASA is now selecting its second batch of instruments, which come from organizations outside of NASA, for future missions. Nagihara's lunar heat flow probe was announced Monday (July 1) as one of these instruments.

"Each CLPS landing mission is expected to have only 8-10 Earth days of work time on the moon, so each of the payload instruments must complete its work very quickly," explained Nagihara, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences. "For the last couple of years, my team has been developing a lunar heat flow probe that can be deployed quickly in order to meet the CLPS landers' requirements."

The heat flow probe's official name is the Lunar Instrumentation for Subsurface Thermal Exploration with Rapidity (LISTER). While LISTER is a catchy acronym – which Nagihara jokes was helpful in getting NASA to choose it – it also pays homage to Clive Lister, a professor at the University of Washington who made important contributions to the study of heat flow through ocean floors on Earth from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Conceptual drawings of the LISTER deployment on the moon. At left, LISTER is attached to a leg of the lander. At right, it spools out a boom and drills into the surface soil of moon, using pneumatic drilling technology developed by Honeybee Robotics. The thermal sensor, or "needle probe", is attached to the bottom end of the boom. Courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

The study of planetary heat flow probes is nothing new to Nagihara; he has been publishing research on the development of such a tool since 2008. In 2017, he received a NASA grant to develop a heat flow probe for Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa. That project borrows some of the technologies Nagihara's team originally developed for the lunar probe. In 2018, he solved the decades-old mystery of lunar warming that resulted from the first manned moon landings.

In conjunction with scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona; the German Space Agency; and the University of Notre Dame, Nagihara will work with Honeybee Robotics in Pasadena to build and test LISTER and ultimately deliver it to NASA. The delivery timeline has not yet been finalized, but Nagihara expects it to be within the next two to three years.

In the meantime, NASA will decide which company's lander will carry LISTER and when. Nagihara and his team will then collaborate with the company to integrate LISTER into the chosen spacecraft.

"It is a dream come true for a planetary scientist like me to conduct experiments on an extraterrestrial body with an instrument built to your own specifications," Nagihara said. "Not many planetary scientists get this kind of opportunity in their lifetime, so I consider myself extremely fortunate and humble. I'm grateful for NASA to give my team this opportunity. I also feel blessed to have highly capable scientists and engineers on my team. At the same time, the pressure is on. Now my team needs to deliver on our promises."