Today, NASA announced that it has selected three commercial companies to send the first round of robotic landers to the Moon as part of the agency’s overall goal of returning humans to the lunar surface. The three US companies — Astrobotic, Orbit Beyond, and Intuitive Machines — are tasked with developing small spacecraft that can safely carry NASA payloads and instruments to the lunar surface and study the Moon in more detail. Their landers are expected to fly in 2020 and 2021.
These companies are partners with NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. CLPS is the first phase of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s initiative to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon. But CLPS is focused on robotic vehicles and science, rather than human spaceflight. The goal is to send instruments and science experiments to the surface of the Moon using commercial landers that are developed and operated by private companies.
“These companies are prime examples of American ingenuity, vision, and know-how.”
“These companies are prime examples of American ingenuity, vision, and know-how,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during an announcement of today’s selection. “Because of these landers and the instruments they deliver, the science technology and research that will be done in the immediate future will prepare the way for humanity’s return to the Moon by 2024.”
Though no people will be riding on these landers, the CLPS spacecraft will aid the overall Artemis project by helping NASA learn a few more details about the lunar surface before people get there. For one, scientists and engineers alike are eager to figure out just how much water ice might by lurking on the Moon’s surface. NASA spacecraft above the Moon have detected water, but scientists still don’t know how much is there and what form it’s in. If there’s a lot, future explorers could potentially use this water for drinking or irrigation in a lunar base or the ice could be broken apart and turned into fuel for rockets.
Image: NASA / Orbit Beyond / Intuitive Machines / Astrobotic
Orbit Beyond’s lander (L), Intuitive Machines’ lander (C), and Astrobotic’s lander (R).
On these first CLPS missions, NASA will study how lunar landings affect the Moon environment and how they kick up dust on the surface. There are plenty of other science objectives NASA has with CLPS, which is why the program is being run through the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. For instance, there are opportunities to study the radiation environment of the Moon and its magnetic field with these landers. The spacecraft will also carry payloads to study the composition of the rocks on the Moon’s surface.
In November, NASA selected nine companies to participate in the CLPS program, creating a pool of organizations the agency could choose from to do robotic missions to the Moon. At the time, NASA claimed that contracts for these missions could equal a combined $2.6 billion over the next 10 years. The three companies announced today are just the first ones to be selected by NASA, but the other six companies could still have opportunities to do missions for the agency in the future.
“My confidence is high that these three companies here will succeed.”
These three companies are poised to be the first to safely land commercial landers on the surface of the Moon — a feat that still hasn’t been accomplished. Up until now, only government superpowers have ever pulled off Moon landings. In April, an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL attempted to land the first privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, but the vehicle ultimately crashed into the lunar surface due to a failure during the landing process.
However, NASA has high hopes for its CLPS partners. “My confidence is high that these three companies here will succeed,” Steven Clark, the deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA, said during a press conference, citing their credible technical plans, schedules, and cost. It’s a more optimistic view than NASA had in November when Bridenstine said that success wasn’t a guarantee.
Right now, Orbit Beyond claims to be leading the pack. With a contract of $97 million from NASA, the company says it will launch its lander — temporarily named Z01 — on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 as early as September 2020. The company plans to send the lander, with up to four payloads in tow, to a lava plain on the Moon called Mare Imbrium. (Before that happens, the company will have a naming contest to give the spacecraft a better title.)
Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The others, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, say they’ll be launching in June and July 2021, respectively. Intuitive Machines was awarded $77 million from NASA and will send its lander, equipped with up to five payloads, to a dark spot on the Moon called Oceanus Procellarum. The company says it will also launch its lander, named Nova-C, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Astrobotic received $79.5 million from NASA and its Peregrine lander will carry up to 14 payloads to a large crater on the Moon called Lacus Mortis. Although Astrobotic previously said it was working with the United Launch Alliance to fly the Peregrine on an Atlas V rocket, the company now says it’s assessing launch options for the upcoming mission.
None of these landers are heading to the south pole of the Moon where NASA plans to land humans. Despite that, NASA argues that these first missions will still help the Artemis mission. “We learn a lot everywhere we go on the Moon that will help for the future human landings,” Chris Culbert, the CLPS program manager at NASA Johnson Space Center, said during the press conference. “And the demonstration of technologies like descent and landing capabilities are largely the same anywhere on the Moon.”
“We learn a lot everywhere we go on the Moon that will help for the future human landings.”
Future CLPS contracts may specify landing spots, but the ultimate goal of these first missions is to start small. “We haven’t landed on the surface of the Moon as a nation in 46 years,” John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, said during the press conference. “So we need to go back, and we need to start small and then go bigger and bigger.”
All three companies are responsible for their missions from top to bottom. While NASA will provide the payloads, the companies must build their landers, attach the instruments, get the vehicles launched on rockets, operate the spacecraft in space, and deliver the hardware to the Moon in one piece. It’s a way of doing business similar to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which gives private companies much more control over their missions and spacecraft.
“This is a new way of doing research of our Moon and a way that can scale to other places as well,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said during today’s announcement. “We’re opening up doors that were never opened to humanity before.”