NASA teaming up with commercial companies for return to the Moon
To achieve the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024, NASA announced it is teaming up with commercial companies to develop new technologies for landing on and taking off from the lunar surface.
On July 30, the space agency issued a public call for commercial companies to build both small and medium-sized lunar landers and rovers capable of bringing science experiments and power sources to the Moon as part of its new Artemis program. The project seeks to land astronauts, including one or more women, on various regions of the lunar surface, including its South Pole. Nine companies have already signed on to a program known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
“Our commercial partners are helping us to advance lunar science in an unprecedented way. As we enable broader opportunities for for commercial providers through CLPS, we’re enlarging our capabilities to do novel measurements and technology development scientists have long wanted to do at the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
In October 2018, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate issued an Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO) seeking private companies to contract with on the many components of future space missions. These include advanced communication, navigation, and avionics; advanced materials for rockets and spacecraft; entry, descent, and landing technologies; in-space manufacturing and assembly of equipment; power systems, including solar cells; propulsion, and other exploration technologies.
Through a public-private collaboration program known as Swamp Works, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is partnering with both SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to make Artemis a reality. With SpaceX, KSC hopes to develop the technology needed to vertically land rockets on the Moon. This could be difficult because of potential interaction between plumes generated by rocket engines and lunar soil, known as regolith.
“Missions to the lunar surface present challenges from rocket engine plume effects as they interact with the regolith surface to eject high-velocity dust particles and rocks,” explained Rob Mueller, senior technologist for advanced projects development at KSC‘s Exploration Research and Technology Programs. “To mitigate the damage to equipment during landings and takeoff, we’ll work on technologies such as launch and landing pads, and blast protection berms or walls to make operations on the Moon sustainable and safe for NASA and all of our partners. These types of risk mitigations become exponentially more important as landers increase in size, and Kennedy‘s Swamp Works is at the forefront of developing new technological solutions for this based on related computer modeling tools and testing.”
NASA hopes that in working together, KSC‘s Swamp Works program and SpaceX can develop technologies capable of landing astronauts on both the Moon and Mars, Mueller emphasized.
KSC‘s partnership with Lockheed Martin seeks to grow plants in space autonomously with the help of robotics. If successful, this could function as a food source for astronauts on future deep space missions. Bryan Onate, chief of KSC‘s Life Sciences and Utilization Office, said the public-private partnership already has a team of engineers, scientists, interns, and other contractors working on the project.
“Exploring beyond low-Earth orbit will require long-duration stays on the Moon and eventually Mars, meaning we are focused on providing plant growth systems that will supplement and sustain the crews’ nutrition and implement autonomous operations as required. So we are excited to be taking part in this collaborative opportunity, which will develop new technology to enable future missions.”
NASA hopes to reduce both the cost and the amount of time needed to develop new technologies for Artemis and for subsequent long-term crewed space missions by working together with commercial spaceflight companies.
“The Artemis program integrates our science and exploration goals, and we are using our commercial partners to help meet those goals with an innovative and cost-effective approach. The ability to land heavier payloads on the lunar surface is a service that NASA has a key interest in. We’re looking forward to innovative proposals and possibly more partners to advance what we’ve already started with CLPS,” emphasized Steve Clarke, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration in science.
Thirteen commercial companies have been contracted with through the ACO for a total of 19 public-private partnerships.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.