Lunar traffic to pick up as NASA readies for robotic commercial moon deliveries
NASA is working on various science instruments and technology experiments from the agency that will operate on the Moon once American companies on Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts deliver them to the lunar surface. Through CLPS flights, NASA is buying a complete commercial robotic lunar delivery service and does not provide launch services, own the lander or lead landing operations.
The agency has already purchased space on five upcoming commercial Moon missions and is expected to announce yet another task order award soon. The upcoming award keeps the agency on track for its goal of two CLPS deliveries per year as part of the Artemis program and will round out two deliveries per year 2021 through 2023.
“We’re excited with the incredible progress we’ve already made with our CLPS initiative since its inception just two years ago, and its clear many other customers are eager to take advantage of these new lunar delivery services,” shared Chris Culbert, manager of the CLPS project. “Commercial companies are responsible for vetting any additional payloads and customers for their lander missions. NASA is just a customer like the others, which allows us to focus on the science ahead for the Artemis program.”
Flights this year
Two commercial landers providing the first CLPS services for NASA will soon be kicking up dust on the Moon, one built by Astrobotic and the other Intuitive Machines. They are expected to deliver a combined total of 17 NASA payloads before the end of the year. Payload is a generic term to describe the many different instruments and experiments either attached directly to the lander itself or stowed safely in its trunk until a safe landing. The number of NASA payloads on a CLPS flight will vary depending on the agency’s science and technology objectives among other factors.
Astrobotic and its Peregrine lander are set to ferry 11 NASA instruments and technology demonstrations to the surface to investigate the composition of lunar soil and a host of other environmental factors. Launching on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, Peregrine is targeting later this year to deliver the suite of payloads to Lacus Mortis, a crater on the near side of the Moon.
NASA will deliver its suite of payloads to Astrobotic in the spring. Next, the payloads will be integrated with the lander structure. Once assembly is complete, the lander will undergo a battery of environmental tests before being shipped to Florida for integration with the launch vehicle.
Intuitive Machines will fly its Nova-C lander to Oceanus Procellarum, the largest dark spot on the Moon. The company, which will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is targeting the fourth quarter of 2021 for its lunar delivery. Six NASA instruments will be delivered to the company this spring to undergo final testing before integration with the lander, including a new navigation and guidance payload to assist with landing.
NASA also added an additional instrument to fly on Nova-C last year, a new fuel gauging technology called Radio Frequency Mass Gauge. Accurately gauging liquid propellant quantity in a low- or zero-gravity environment is critical for spacecraft design and performance, but difficult because the liquid does not settle as it would on Earth. Results will help develop flight systems that could be used on future Artemis missions with crew.
Looking Ahead to 2022, Beyond
Masten Space Systems is working to deliver eight instruments to the lunar surface in 2022 using its XL-1 lander, launched by a SpaceX rocket. NASA and Masten recently selected a landing site on the rim of Haworth Crater, where scientists believe permanently shadowed areas could contain ice near the surface and deeper in reservoirs. Landing just outside Haworth will provide enough solar power to the lander’s solar arrays, while giving the payload instruments access to the crater.
The Haworth area is expected to have cold traps of water, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide, and other volatiles that could be resources for future human explorers and which will help scientists understand lunar evolution. Several instruments will help assess lunar surface composition and evaluate radiation levels. This summer, Masten will complete a required review of the lander, and NASA will continue to design and build agency payloads for the flight.
Intuitive Machines will fly the agency’s PRIME-1 payload to the Moon next year, which is a precursor instrument to a future water mapping robot – the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover or VIPER – in development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Astrobotic was selected last year to fly NASA’s VIPER rover to the Moon in late 2023 using its new Griffin lander. The company will deliver a mockup of the lander to the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in February for a series of test to ensure the rover and its lander will operate seamlessly together when on the Moon.
The agency is also planning an upcoming announcement to select a provider to deliver a suite of 10 instruments to a non-polar region of the Moon in 2023. Additionally, NASA will announce instrument selections this year under the Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) solicitation for future CLPS flights followed by bidding to deliver them later.
Future NASA payloads delivered to the Moon on CLPS flights could include other rovers, power sources, and science experiments, including the technology demonstrations to be infused into the Artemis program.
“The many science instruments and technology demonstrations that NASA will land on the Moon using the CLPS initiative, will pave the way for scientific research by the Artemis moon walkers,” said Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.