Next month, almost half a century since the United States last landed a spacecraft on the moon, NASA is expected to announce plans to return. But the agency will only be together for the trip. Instead of revealing plans for the spacecraft itself, NASA will name a private company that will pay to bring science experiments to the moon on small robotic landers.
Under a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), NASA will buy space above several launches a year, starting in 2021. This effort is similar to an agency program that pays private space companies like SpaceX from Elon Musk to send cargo to the Outer Station Angkasa Internasional (ISS). "This is a new way of doing business," said Sarah Noble, a planetary scientist at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., who led the science side of NASA's moon plan.
Scientists are lining up to go up. "This really feels like the future of lunar exploration," said Erica Jawin, a planetary scientist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. She and other participants at the annual Moon Exploration Analysis Group meeting in Columbia, Maryland. , last week was eager to show NASA why their little experiment would be a proper pillion for landers.
Some companies, including Astrobotic, Moon Express, and iSpace, are competing to build a commercial moon market. Buying rides to the moon from launch providers such as Rocket Lab, each company hopes to become an operator for other companies that are looking for the prospect of the moon for rocket fuel, or collecting stones for sale to study. But the contract with NASA is a real gift. Moon Express, for example, has designed MX-1, a lander that is approximately the size and shape Star WarsR2-D2. But, "We won't pull the trigger until we know we have the CLPS award," said Moon Express CEO Robert Richards at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The company selected for CLPS must send at least 10 kilograms of cargo by the end of 2021, NASA said. It was scrambling to find an instrument ready to fly. "What have you been sitting on the shelf now that you can throw at the mission immediately?" Noble said. "We are looking for flight parts, engineering models, projects built by students. This is a strange call for us." The agency plans to pay up to $ 36 million to adapt eight to 12 scientific instruments available to early small entrants; in the middle of the coming decade, it aims to build an instrument pipeline for larger landers who may also carry rovers.
The first small commercial entrants will be pale in ability besides the traditional NASA mission. Some possibilities will fail, as NASA's head of science, Thomas Zurbuchen, has repeatedly warned. They will not last at night, 2 weeks when the surface temperature drops to −173 ° C. They may not be able to land in a certain place. But scientists are still eager to get cameras and other instruments back to the surface of the moon, said Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. "This is a good start."
NASA is still working out of purpose for commercial landers. Earlier this year, lunar scientists compiled a list of 16 key sites to test images of the moon that appeared as more volcanically active and richer than expected. For example, 4 years ago scientists studied the Ina caldera, a collection of small, soft volcanic mounds near the moon, realizing it was relatively free from the crater. Observations suggest that instead of ending a billion years ago, volcanism – a sign of interior heat – lasted several million years ago, tidying the landscape. If true – and some refute the findings – it will override the theory of how the moon, and potentially rocky planets, cool with time.
On the 2 kilometer high plateau of Aristarchus, scientists wanted to study the deposits of abundant volcanic ash, which were made in explosive eruptions, gas-driven eruptions, a rarity on the moon. Thanks to its good granularity, ash can also be an excellent building block for human habitat. Samples from Marius Hills, a shield volcano that may have erupted for quite a long time, can explain how moon water deposits, carbon monoxide, and other volatiles evolve over time. And looking inside a permanent shadow crater at the moon's poles can confirm whether some of the water is frozen there, said Brett Denevi, a planetary geologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
The first small landers only allow small steps towards this scientific goal. But the agency was finally able to support the commercial robotic return mission, which Astrobotic and Moon Express hope to offer. "They can say," I want 2 kilograms of regolith a month from this and that location, & # 39; " said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The returned sample can help researchers with a lasting goal: dating the old and young craters of the moon, which dictates the age estimates for surfaces throughout the solar system.
NASA also wants to fly people around the moon – but on its own spacecraft. It built Gateway, a small post, which, in 2024, would accommodate astronauts for several months at a time in a volume that was pressurized one-tenth the size of the ISS. The Gateway, which will cost at least US $ 3 billion for the first few parts, will not orbit the moon, but rather, will follow the rounds throughout the week around the point of distant gravitational balance – a poor sight for observing the moon. "We are not 100% sure of its value for lunar science," said Ryan Watkins, a lunar scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. Noble acknowledged that Gateway might be more valuable for studying the sun or the entire universe.
Ben Bussey, NASA's main scientist for human exploration, said the agency was trying to accommodate the concerns of scientists. For example, he will prioritize completing the station with a robotic arm, which is needed for experimentation on the outside. And it is investigating the possibility of a reusable "pull" spacecraft that can transport landers, samples, and instruments between the Gateway and low moon orbit, Bussey said.
Imagining this month's plan is fear that they will change. Republicans in Congress proposed a month's return under former President George W. Bush, only to have the government of former President Barack Obama who emphasized visits to asteroids in space, as a springboard to Mars. So far, the Republic-led Congress has fully funded the agency's month plan: the 2019 expenditure bill contains $ 500 million for Gateway and more than $ 200 million for early landers and NASA science plans. Now, lunar scientists need to convey their support to the newly empowered Democrats, said Neal. If NASA funds several small landers and the program changes again, Denevi added, "it will only be a decade wasted again."