Lunar Exploration: Oxford’s Thermal Imaging Camera to Unveil Moon’s Water

In an audacious leap forward for lunar exploration, an advanced thermal imaging camera crafted by the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics is poised to play a pivotal role in NASA’s forthcoming Lunar Trailblazer mission, slated for a 2024 liftoff. This mission endeavours to chart the distribution of diverse water forms adorning the lunar terrain, unravelling the enigmatic lunar water cycle and paving the way for upcoming human endeavours.


The University of Oxford’s Lunar Thermal Mapper (LTM) instrument has achieved a significant milestone, recently taking up residence within NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft, a remarkable feat realized at Lockheed Martin Space in Colorado, USA. Supported by the UK Space Agency, this cutting-edge camera is set to discern the lunar surface’s temperature and composition at a staggering 50-meter resolution. In synergy with the High-resolution Volatiles and Minerals Moon Mapper (HVM3), nestled within the same spacecraft, this dynamic duo is poised to uncover the abundance, distribution, and molecular structures of the Moon’s elusive water reservoirs.

Both these remarkable instruments have been seamlessly integrated onto the compact Lunar Trailblazer satellite, spanning a mere 3.5 meters in width with fully extended solar panels. Tasked with unearthing water evidence on the lunar crust, their findings will craft invaluable maps, illuminating the path for robotic and human explorations, including the ambitious Artemis program’s human lunar landings. The promise of lunar water encompasses myriad possibilities, from purification for drinking to its transformation into fuel and life-sustaining oxygen.


The LTM, employing four broadband infrared channels, is primed to generate comprehensive temperature maps spanning a chilling -163°C to a scorching 127°C. Further enriching its capabilities, eleven narrow infrared channels will decipher subtle compositional variances in the silicate minerals constituting the Moon’s geological tapestry. This profound insight will unveil the lunar surface’s intrinsic composition and potentially unveil water’s cryptic hiding spots. Meanwhile, the HVM3, an innovation by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, will harness spectral fingerprints (sunlight’s reflected wavelengths) to detect and map water’s forms, concentrations, and locations across the lunar expanse.

Lunar Trailblazer’s meticulous data collection, conducted across diverse time frames, is poised to unveil the ever-shifting nature of lunar water. This includes its potential metamorphosis into gas as sunlight warms the surface or its accumulation in shaded enclaves, akin to frost during cooling periods. These revelations will address crucial inquiries, including whether water molecules are ensnared within lunar rock or if ice-rich recesses within the polar shadows harbour substantial water reservoirs.

The journey of Lunar Trailblazer, a recipient of NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) accolade in 2019, is set to commence. This prestigious award champions visionary small satellite missions. Hitching a ride aboard a planned lunar lender mission spearheaded by Intuitive Machines, Lunar Trailblazer is poised to carve its way into the cosmos, anticipating a 2024 liftoff.

Professor Neil Bowles, the mastermind behind LTM at the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, exclaims, “Crafting, refining, scrutinizing, and finally delivering LTM for its lunar odyssey stands as a triumphant testament to the ingenious and unwavering dedication exhibited by teams across Oxford and the entire UK. Navigating the challenges posed by recent global circumstances adds to the narrative, making this achievement all the more remarkable. The mission’s data treasure trove will deepen our comprehension of water’s labyrinthine journey across the lunar landscape, fuelling anticipation for forthcoming human-robotic explorations.”

For the Planetary Experiments Group within the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, this milestone marks yet another pinnacle in their illustrious 50-year legacy of developing spaceflight components and infrared thermal mapping cameras. From Mars and Saturn to this lunar endeavour, their indelible impact echoes across the cosmos. A precedent set by the successful launch of a miniature infrared thermal camera aboard the UK spacecraft TechDemoSat-1 in 2014, designed to facilitate thermal mapping of asteroids, provided the bedrock for their endeavours. Building upon this foundation, the Oxford team ingeniously proposed an enhanced thermal camera, culminating in the birth of Lunar Trailblazer’s transformative vision.


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