NASA selects experiments to fly aboard commercial lunar landers
With commercial lunar landers starting to fly, the next step will be for payloads, public and private, to be sent aboard them to the Moon’s surface.
For its part, NASA has selected 12 science and technology demonstration payloads to fly to the Moon as early as this year, depending on availability, the agency said in a news release.
“The Moon has unique scientific value and the potential to yield resources, such as water and oxygen,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in an agency statement. “Its proximity to Earth makes it especially valuable as a proving ground for deeper space exploration.”
According to NASA, the payloads being developed in NASA facilities across the U.S. are as follows:
- A linear energy transfer spectrometer, which is designed to measure the lunar surface radiation environment.
- Three resource prospecting instruments:
- A near-infrared volatile spectrometer system, which designed to measure surface composition.
- A neutron spectrometer, which is designed to measure hydrogen abundance
- An ion-trap mass spectrometer, which designed to measure volatile contents in the surface and lunar exosphere.
- A magnetometer designed to measure the surface magnetic field.
- A radio science instrument designed to measure the density of the photoelectron sheath near the surface.
- Three instruments designed to acquire information during entry, descent and landing on the lunar surface to inform the design of future lunar landers including the next human landers:
- Stereo Cameras designed to image the interaction between the lander engine plume as it hits the lunar surface.
- An experiment designed to monitor how the landing affects the lunar exosphere.
- A doppler Lidar make precise velocity and ranging measurements during the descent, which could help develop precision landing capabilities for future landers.
Additionally, NASA said two technology demonstrations are set to fly as well: A solar cell demonstration to test an advanced solar array for longer mission duration, and a navigation beacon designed to assist with geolocation for orbiting spacecraft and landers.
Moreover, NASA is soliciting proposals for other science instrument and technology investigations under the Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payload program. LSITP proposals are due by Feb. 27 with awards expected by spring 2019.
“This payload selection announcement is the exciting next step on our path to return to the surface of the Moon,” Steve Clarke, NASA Science Mission Directorate deputy associate administrator for Exploration at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in an agency news release. “The selected payloads, along with those that will be awarded through the Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads call, will begin to build a healthy pipeline of scientific investigations and technology development payloads that we can fly to the lunar surface using U.S. commercial landing delivery services. Future calls for payloads are planned to be released each year for additional opportunities.”
According to NASA, the selected payloads are set fly via nine companies selected in November 2018 through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS: Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh; Deep Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado; Draper of Cambridge; Massachusetts; Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas; Intuitive Machines of Houston; Lockheed Martin of Littleton Colorado; Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California; Moon Express of Cape Canaveral, Florida; and Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey.
NASA hopes to assign the first mission in spring 2019 before selecting specific payloads for that flight.
International interest in the Moon
While these are all U.S. companies, there are several companies overseas that are making significant progress on their landers.
Of all the companies developing private lunar landers, however, one has made beyond the launch pad: Israel-based non-profit SpaceIL and its Beresheet lander.
The first Beresheet lander is currently on its way to the Moon. NASA also has a presence aboard the spacecraft in the form of a small laser retroreflector experiment designed to test its potential as a navigation tool, the U.S. space agency said.
Additionally, NASA said it granted SpaceIL use of the Deep Space Network to communicate with the lander and to transmit data back to the organization and its partners.
Beresheet is expected to take about two months to raise itself from its current geostationary transfer orbit to an elliptical orbit high enough to be captured by the Moon. It is planned to land in the plains of the Sea of Serenity, which is just to the northwest of the Sea of Tranquility.
However, as this is a test mission problems could crop up. The Israeli SpaceIL lander has experienced two issues thus far: high sensitivity to the sun’s rays in the spacecraft’s star trackers and an unexpected computer reset forcing the cancellation of a pre-maneuver phase.
In a tweet, SpaceIL said the spacecraft’s systems were working well.
While it is unclear if the two issues are significant setbacks or minor hiccups (all signs point to the latter), test flights are meant to iron these out, especially since landing on the Moon has never before been done by a private organization.
It’s important to remember that companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and even Rocket Lab all experienced failures of some sort during their first missions. Whether companies landing on the Moon are ultimately successful in the long run will likely have more to do with overcoming any failures and maintaining a strong business case.
Going to the Moon sustainably to stay
Regardless of what happens, NASA is looking to companies to facilitate its return to the Moon both scientifically and eventually with humans.
NASA announced in February 2019 its plans to work with U.S. companies to design and develop a three-part human-rated lunar landing system which would be partially reusable with the goal of being fully reusable once surface refueling becomes possible through in situ resource utilization, or ISRU.
The plan is to have companies develop a descent vehicle, possibly an evolved version of those under CLPS, and a transfer vehicle. Both would be based at NASA’s Lunar Gateway, which is expected to be built beginning in the early-to-mid-2020s in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.
It is expected that the transfer vehicle would take the descent vehicle to low-lunar orbit before returning to the Gateway to be refueled by a commercial logistics spacecraft. The descent vehicle would then perform a landing. It would not be reused until ISRU becomes feasible.
These two pieces could become available beginning in 2024.
Meanwhile, NASA hopes to develop a human-rated ascent vehicle. Once ready, it would be flown to the Gateway to be attached to the descent and transfer vehicles. By 2026, an unpiloted dress rehearsal mission could occur. Once taken to low-lunar orbit by the transfer vehicle, the descent vehicle would take the ascent vehicle to the surface. At the conclusion of its mission, the ascent vehicle would launch directly back to the Gateway to be refueled along with the transfer vehicle and await it next descent vehicle.
If all checks out, the first human landings using the system could occur in 2028.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.