NASA to investigate moon with science missions on three private lunar landers

Lunar resources could help fuel spaceflight, further exploration

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

Orbit Beyond CEO Siba Padhi and chief science officer John Morse and next to the company’s lunar lander at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Orbit Beyond, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines were all awarded multi-million dollar contracts to…

NASA is ready to do some science on the moon with the help of three private companies.

The U.S. space agency revealed Friday it has selected three American businesses to send lunar landers with NASA science instruments to the moon starting next year.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, hosted the announcement at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center where all three companies showed off life-sized models of their lunar landers.

NASA awarded a combined $253.5 million in contracts to Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond to build spacecraft to land on the moon with scientific instruments as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Orbit Beyond, which operates out of Daytona Beach and Edison, New Jersey, plans to fly payloads on its Z-01 lander to the Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the moon’s craters, by September 2020.

Astrobotic, Pennsylvania company, said it will launch its lunar lander called the Peregrine in June 2021 and land in July. Company officials said 14 NASA science payloads will be onboard for the first landing, as well as science missions from eight other countries.

Some of the NASA science payloads investigate how spacecraft landing on the moon can affect the environment and lunar landing accuracy.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines plans to launch its lander Nova-C in July 2021 and land on the lunar surface about a week later.

Both Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond have contracted launches with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. Astrobotic officials said they are still determining which launch vehicle will send their spacecraft to the moon.

On left, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander and, on right, the Nova-C lander from Intuitive Machines. Both companies say they will launch to the moon in 2021. (Image: NASA)

Some of the scientific instruments on board the landers could be working toward mining resources from the lunar surface.

For example, the moon's Shackleton Crater is filled with water and other organic compounds, or volatiles, which can be turned into propellants to reduce space travel costs.

Zurbuchen said experiments being developed at NASA are focused primarily on volatiles, like water, found on the moon.

The announcement comes as NASA is moving full steam ahead toward its goal of returning humans to the moon in the next five years under a program called Artemis and a sustainable presence there by 2028.

The $2.6 billion Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, also known at CLIPS, is focused on conducting scientific experiments on the lunar surface.

Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond were among the nine companies selected in November by NASA to develop robotic moon landers, rovers and rockets to get the payloads to the moon.

Zurbuchen said these robotic science missions are "critical first phase" to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. "Robots and humans go together," he said. "That's the right way to go."

Previously, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the first CLIPS launch could happen possibly as soon this year.

"NASA plans to issue its first task order for payload delivery services to the lunar surface in May, and the first delivery could happen by late 2019 if commercial landers are ready," according to the agency's most recent timeline. "NASA will order more deliveries to the moon as needed over the next decade."

If Orbit Beyond launches next year its lander will be the first American spacecraft to land on the surface of the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

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