X-ray flashlight to reveal composition of Moon’s surface

Technology that uses X- and gamma-rays to characterise the structure and composition of the Moon’s surface has been selected to participate in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

Graphic depiction of the EmberCore Flashlight
Graphic depiction of the EmberCore Flashlight - Christopher Morrison

The Phase 1 study, "EmberCore Flashlight: Long Distance Lunar Characterization with Intense Passive X- and Gamma-ray Source," will be led by Dr Chris Morrison, chief engineer, radioisotopes at Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), and supported by co-investigator Dr Thomas Prettyman of the Planetary Science Institute.

The X-Ray Flashlight will utilise EmberSource which is based on the Ember nuclear chargeable ceramic USNC has been developing for ultra-high-speed propulsion in space and ‘survive-the-night’ capabilities on the lunar surface.

By integrating EmberSource into a specially designed casing, X-rays that would normally be contained by shielding are released through a controllable aperture. As those X-rays interact with the lunar surface and reflect into a sensor, providing information about the lunar surface and what lies beneath it.


"This technology will enable characterisation of the structure and composition of the lunar surface in unprecedented detail," Dr Thomas Prettyman, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, said in a statement. "The capabilities for standoff analyses of elemental composition and operation in darkness are potentially game-changing."

According to USNC, a rover equipped with an EmberSource X-Ray Flashlight could use the tool to map the composition of broad areas of the lunar surface from a distance. With a beam strength several orders of magnitude greater than any X-ray source previously deployed in space combined with the mobility of a rover, it would be possible to map the composition of the lunar surface in far greater fidelity than ever before.

“The EmberSource X-ray flashlight represents the right combination of cutting-edge technology and ground-breaking science which the NASA NIAC program is designed to foster,” said Morrison. “The new capabilities provided by this technology could revolutionise lunar exploration by giving us the clearest picture we’ve ever had of what resources are available on the Moon, hopefully paving the way for a sustainable human presence there.”

The EmberSource X-Ray Flashlight in development for this Phase 1 NIAC is intended to be used in two locations on the moon: the 21m wide Shackleton Crater, which NASA believes has the potential to hold significant amounts of water and other volatiles; and Mare Tranquillitatis, where tens of metres of exposed bedrock is exposed in steep pits.