NASA chooses three companies to send robotic landers to the moon to study the surface of the moon

Today, NASA has announced that this is the case selected three commercial companies to send the first round of robotic landers to the moon as part of the agency's overall goal of bringing people back to the lunar surface. The three American companies – Astrobotic, Orbit Beyond and Intuitive Machines – have the task of developing small spacecraft that can safely transport NASA loads and instruments to the lunar surface and study the moon in more detail. Their landers are expected to fly in 2020 and 2021.

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These companies are partners of 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 robot vehicles and science, rather than human space flights. The aim is to send instruments and scientific experiments to the surface of the moon with the help of commercial landers developed and operated by private companies.

"These companies are excellent examples of American ingenuity, vision, and know-how," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a today's selection announcement. "Because of these landers and the tools they provide, the science technology and research that will be done in the near future will prepare the way for humanity's return to the moon in 2024."

Although no people will ride these landers, the CLPS spacecraft will help the entire Artemis project by helping NASA learn a few details about the lunar surface before people arrive there. First, scientists and engineers want to know how much water ice can be left by slumbering on the surface of the moon. NASA spacecraft above the moon have detected water, but scientists still don't know how much there is and in what form. If there are many, future explorers may be able to use this water to drink or irrigate in a lunar base or the ice could. taken apart and turned into rocket fuel.


The lander of Orbit Beyond (L), the lander of the Intuitive Machines (C) and the lander of Astrobotic (R).
Image: NASA / outer lane / intuitive / astrobotic machines

About these first CLPS missions, NASA will study how lunar landings affect the lunar environment and how they cause dust to float on the surface. There are many other scientific goals that NASA has with CLPS. That is why the program is managed by the Science Missions Directorate of the office. For example, there are opportunities to study the radiation environment of the moon and its magnetic field with these landers. The spacecraft will also carry useful cargo to study the composition of the rocks on the surface of the moon.

In November, NASA selected nine companies to participate in the CLPS program, creating a pool of organizations from which the agency could choose to do robot missions to the moon. At the time, NASA claimed that contracts for these missions could amount to a combined amount of $ 2.6 billion over the next 10 years. The three companies announced today are just the first to be selected by NASA, but the other six companies would still have the ability to do missions for the agency in the future.

These three companies are ready to be the first to land safe landers on the surface of the moon – an achievement that has still not been accomplished. So far, only government superpowers have ever made moon landings. In April, an Israeli nonprofit organization SpaceIL attempted to land the first privately funded spacecraft on the moon, but the vehicle eventually crashed into the surface of the moon due to a disruption during the landing process.

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However, NASA has high expectations of its CLPS partners. "I am confident that these three companies will succeed here," said Steven Clark, deputy deputy administrator for NASA reconnaissance, at a press conference, citing their credible technical plans, schedules & costs. It is a more optimistic view than NASA had in November when Bridenstine said success was no guarantee.

Orbit Beyond currently claims to be the leader. With a $ 97 million contract from NASA, the company says it will launch its lander – temporarily called Z01 – on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 as early as September 2020. The company plans to send the lander, with a maximum of four payloads in tow, to a lava plain on the moon called Mare Imbrium. (Before that happens, the company gets a name contest to give the spacecraft a better title.)


GRACE-FO Launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images

The others, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, say they will be launched in June and July 2021 respectively. Intuitive Machines received $ 77 million from NASA and sends its lander, equipped with up to five payloads, to a dark place 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 the Peregrine lander will carry up to 14 payloads to a large crater on the moon called Lacus Mortis. Although Astrobotic previously said it wanted to fly the Peregrine on an Atlas V rocket with the United Launch Alliance, the company now says it is assessing launch options for the upcoming mission.

None of these landers goes to the south pole of the moon, where NASA plans to have people land. Nevertheless, NASA claims that these first missions will still help the Artemis mission. "We learn a lot everywhere we go on the moon that will help with the future human landing," said Chris Culbert, CLPS program manager at NASA Johnson Space Center at the press conference. "And the demonstration of technologies such as descent and landing possibilities are the same almost everywhere on the moon."

Future CLPS contracts can specify landing sites, but the ultimate goal of these first missions is to start small. "We have not landed on the surface of the moon like a nation in 46 years," said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, at the press conference. "So we have to go back and we have to start small and then get bigger and bigger."

All three companies are responsible for their missions from top to bottom. While NASA delivers the payloads, companies must build their landers, attach the instruments, launch the vehicles on rockets, run the spacecraft into space, and bring the hardware to the moon in one piece. It is a way of doing business similar to NASA & # 39; s Commercial Crew Program, which gives private companies much more control over their missions and spacecraft.

"This is a new way to do research on our Moon and a way to scale to other places," said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the NASA Scientific Mission Directorate during today's announcement. "We are opening doors that have never been opened to humanity."

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