Astrobotic's Peregrine is one of three landers selected to put experiments on the moon for NASA.

ASTROBOTIC TECHNOLOGY

NASA selects three companies to lead its robotic return to moon

Nearly a half-century after the United States last landed a spacecraft on the moon, NASA today announced the details of its first robotic return trip. But the agency’s visit, which could come as soon as next fall, won’t be on a spacecraft it designed. Instead, NASA will be buying a ride on three small robotic landers to be built by similarly small U.S. companies.

The agency has awarded a total of $254 million in contracts to Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Intuitive Machines of Houston, Texas; and Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines plan to land their machines in the summer of 2021, whereas Orbit Beyond has set an aggressive schedule of landing in September 2020 on Mare Imbrium, a lava plain previously visited by Apollo 15.

The contracts represent an important step for the agency, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “If you’re going to have a space program, the way to keep it going is to show return of investment to the taxpayer.” The regular cadence of these missions, which could launch three to four times a year by 2024, could grab the public’s imagination—and enable scientists to answer questions about the moon that they didn’t even know to ask until recently. But the speed could also have a cost: an increased risk of failure. Last month, for example, a small, low-cost Israeli lander, Beresheet, crashed on the moon’s surface. “Some of these will fail,” Neal says. “But failure is a learning experience.”

NASA will not be the only customer on these missions, even though it will be the largest and most important. Astrobotic, which has been developing its lander for a decade, will carry up to 14 scientific instruments for the agency on the decks of its Peregrine lander, along with an additional 14 payloads from seven other countries, the company’s CEO, John Thornton, said during the announcement. “NASA is now a major partner of the future of the moon.”

Orbit Beyond’s aggressive schedule is driven by its adoption of a lander developed by its partner, Team Indus, an Indian company that was not eligible to bid on the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program on its own and had previously pursued the canceled Google Lunar XPrize. The company will carry up to four payloads, with plans to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both Orbit Beyond and Astrobotic also plan to bring along small robotic rovers, not developed by NASA, to deploy once they land.

Intuitive Machines, less well-known than its peers, will carry up to five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms, a dark lava plain on the western edge of moon’s near side. Each company proposed its landing spot, and all three focus on such plains in attempt to minimize potential hazards and demonstrate their capability. “A safe landing is most important,” Thornton said.

NASA has asked its own scientists, and outside researchers, to scour their shelves for ready-to-fly instruments that it can place on the landers. Although the agency has already selected some instruments, it has not yet decided how they will be divided among the landers. A common theme among them will be a focus on understanding lunar water, which is far more abundant than once thought. “This is science that in many cases even five years ago we didn’t know to ask questions about,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, D.C.

Late last year, NASA announced that it had selected nine companies to compete for regular contracts to carry scientific instruments to the lunar service. CLPS, is meant to jump-start the agency’s lunar ambitions, spurring private development much like its program that has paid private space companies to deliver cargo to the space station. NASA is willing to pay up to $2.6 billion for these services over the next decade, and the companies not selected today will remain eligible to bid on future missions.

These first landers pale in capability to traditional NASA missions. They’ve been asked to only operate for about 2 weeks. Their landing sites are not exotic. But their success will pave the way for robotic exploration of the moon’s poles and far side, which have long been scientific targets for the stories they can tell about the history of the solar system. They are also “critical testbeds for the technologies and architectures needed to ensure a safe human return to the moon by 2024,” says Ryan Watkins, a lunar scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in St. Louis, Missouri.

The target for a human return in 2024 is the moon’s south pole. That means it’s almost definite that future CLPS awards would target that region, Zurbuchen said. “We want to go explore where we want to land.”