As NASA prepares to send humans back to the moon through the highly anticipated Artemis program, it is taking big steps to encourage the development of commercial landers.
First assignment: CLPS. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is funding 14 separate lander concepts from Astrobotic, Deep Space Systems, Draper Labs, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, OrbitBeyond, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Space, SpaceX and Tyvak nanosatellite systems.
First on the starting list:
- Astrobot: If all goes according to plan, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander will be the first commercial lander to land on the moon — or any other non-terrestrial planetary body, for that matter. Later this year, it will transport 11 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a lunar crater. Astrobotic is also developing the larger Griffin lander, which will take NASA’s Ames Research Center-developed VIPER rover to the moon. (That mission, NASA announced Monday, has been delayed for a year, to 2024, to allow more time for ground testing of the Griffin.)
- Intuitive machines: The company’s lander concept, Nova-C, is a six-legged cylindrical capsule capable of delivering 100kg of payload to the moon’s surface. The lander will launch late this year aboard a Falcon 9 and carry five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a dark spot on the lunar surface.
- glowworm: The whimsically named Blue Ghost lander is expected to debut in 2023. It will transport 10 payloads to Mare Crisium, a basin on the near side of the moon. Firefly is expected to land a Blue Ghost on the moon annually after its first landing.
- Masten Space Systems: Masten’s XL-1 lander will travel to the moon’s south pole in 2023. It will be loaded with eight payloads, including MoonRanger, a lightweight rover that will showcase communications and mapping technology.
These are all purely robotic missions to the moon. NASA has a contract with SpaceX for a Human Landing System (HLS) to take astronauts to the lunar surface. Spurred on by Blue Origin, Congress and others, the US space agency has announced it will… requests for proposals for a second HLS concept.
The US companies that send landers and rovers to the moon will not end up with the CLPS program. Venturi Astrolab, for example, emerged from stealth with a moon rover concept, BOWearlier this year.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has planned a number of its own moon landing missions in the coming years. However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most missions have been put on ice or otherwise hit by international sanctions and by the ESA (European Space Agency) interrupting joint space missions.
Russia’s next lunar lander is the Luna-25 mission, which will launch in September and land at the moon’s south pole to study lunar regolith (the loose rock that covers the moon’s surface). Originally, the lander would have been equipped with a European-built navigation camera. After ESA withdrew from the mission, Roscosmos chose to build its own instrument. The fate of Russia’s next planned landing missions, Luna-26 and 27, is still at stake.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) hoped to send its first spacecraft to the lunar surface in August, but it now looks like a 2023 landing is more likely. The mission, Chandrayaan-3, is designed to place a lander on the moon’s south pole. After the Chandrayaan-2 rover payload crashed on the moon in 2019, ISRO wants to make sure it won’t fail again.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has worked separately with both Toyota and Nissan to build moon rovers in the coming years. The Lunar Cruiser, Toyota’s prototype, is designed to help people live comfortably on the moon by 2040. The Nissan project, unveiled in December, uses the company’s four-wheel drive technology and technology for electric vehicles for lunar applications.
A private Japanese company, ispace, also builds his own lunar lander and rover. It hopes to launch its first lander this year and its first lander/rover combination in 2024. After that, the company has ambitious plans to increase the cadence of its moon landings.