NASA announces Commercial Lunar lander inititative
In an effort to further NASA’s increasing involvement with commercial companies, the space agency has announced that it is researching opportunities to have commercial companies develop spacecraft capable of landing on the Moon.
NASA is looking for proposals from possible commercial partners which, according to a NASA-issued press release, it hopes will lead to, “reliable and cost-effective commercial robotic lunar lander capabilities that will enable the delivery of payloads to the lunar surface.”
On Monday, Jan. 27, NASA will host a teleconference where those interested in submitting proposals will have the opportunity to query NASA about what this new announcements entails. After that, interested firms will have until Mar. 17 to submit their proposals. If everything proceeds apace, selections will be made in April and Space Act Agreements (SAAs) announced the month after that.
NASA views the benefits as two-fold. First there is the commercial benefit of lunar exploration and exploitation. The Moon is awash in resources such as titanium, water and various other minerals and metals as well as what some view as an important fuel source the rare (on Earth) isotope helium 3 (China has made statements which suggest its interest in the Moon is less about prestige and more about the resources contained there). Secondly is the scientific missions of exploration that the space agency would like to accomplish on the Moon.
To make this happen, NASA has unveiled the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative. NASA is seeking proposals from commercial companies which it hopes will lead to: “…one or more no-funds exchanged Space Act Agreements.”
NASA’s efforts under Lunar CATALYST are in line with the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER), an international roadmap for shared space exploration efforts which was released this past August. This agreement was signed by some 12 space agencies from around the world. Within the GER, the positive aspects of so-called public-private partnerships were highlighted as were the possible positive benefits commercial companies could provide in terms of the exploration of various destinations, such as the Moon, Mars and asteroids.
For its part, NASA will provide the extensive technical experience that its employees have in such matters, use of the space agency’s test facilities, its equipment and other assets.
NASA has been testing systems which could prove to be invaluable in terms of Lunar CATALYST. The agency’s Morpheus, Mighty Eagle and Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) – all could provide invaluable information and assets to private companies attempting to land spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.
Commercial lunar cargo transportation systems developed through Lunar CATALYST could build on lessons learned throughout NASA’s 50 years of spaceflight. New propulsion and autonomous landing technologies currently are being tested through NASA’s Morpheus and Mighty Eagle projects.
“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U.S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon,” said NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Greg Williams. “Our strategic investments in the innovations of our commercial partners have brought about successful commercial resupply of the International Space Station, to be followed in the coming years by commercial crew. Lunar CATALYST will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”
The Moon is viewed by many inside and outside of scientific circles as the next logical step for humanity to establish a permanent presence on. A three-day journey from Earth, it has, as mentioned, a wealth of resources including water which can be used for life support, rocket fuel and drinking water. The Moon would serve as the “first stop” in a highway out into the solar system under this model.
NASA’s Clementine, Lunar Prospector and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have all detected a variety of “in-situ” resources which could be used by those astronauts who return to the Moon’s surface after a hiatus of more than 40 years.
“In recent years, lunar orbiting missions, such as NASA’s , have revealed evidence of water and other volatiles, but to understand the extent and accessibility of these resources, we need to reach the surface and explore up close,” said NASA’s Director of Advanced Exploration Systems Jason Crusan. “Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources.”
NASA’s role has been dubbed as one of “pathfinder” by many within the aerospace community. As the space agency reaches one destination, developing the methods to reach it and sustain a presence there – it could then cede control of that point to private firms. This model has been already proven out in terms of commercial companies providing delivery of cargo to low-Earth-orbit and it could also see the primary role of delivering crew to this destination to these organizations as well.
In terms of lunar scientific research, NASA has stated that the following endeavors could benefit from such a program: science and exploration objectives, sample return missions, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations.
Under Lunar CATALYST these firms are required to land payloads ranging from 66 – 220 lbs (30 to 100 kilograms) and 551 to 1,102 lbs (250 to 500 kilograms) to a variety of lunar destinations. Missions conducted by NASA and other space agencies have shown that the lunar surface has extensive resources which could support crewed missions.
NASA has been directed to cede control of operations in low-Earth-orbit, those that send crew and cargo to the one current destination in LEO – the International Space Station (ISS). Progress has already been made in terms of sending cargo to the ISS, with three flights conducted under the space agency’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. NASA hopes that these companies will be able to send crews to the ISS within the next three years.
Meanwhile, NASA is developing the Space Launch System or “SLS” heavy-lift booster to carry the agency’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. The Obama White House has directed NASA to use SLS to send Orion to an asteroid in the early-to-mid 2020s and to Mars within the 2030s.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.