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NASA-Funded Private Moon Race Begins With Dueling Landers

Moon,NASA,Commercial Space
Jonathan O'Callaghan
Noah Watson
December 12, 202311:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Several US companies hope to reach the surface of the Moon next month as NASA preps for human missions.

Next year, four astronauts will fly around the Moon during Artemis II, to prepare for Artemis III, NASA's long-awaited return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

Paving the way for these crewed missions is a fleet of landers being developed by private companies in the US. Funded by NASA, these companies will test out various technologies for those upcoming human missions and scout out potential landing sites at the Moon’s south pole, as NASA ramps up its efforts to sustain a permanent presence.

“We are explorers and adventurers as a species,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a briefing. “That is the fulfillment of our destiny.”

Leading the charge of these private companies are Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic and Texas-based Intuitive Machines. The former hopes to launch its Peregrine lander to the Moon on January 8th on the maiden flight of ULA's Vulcan rocket, while the latter has set for a January 12th launch of its Nova-C lander atop SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

“The anticipation is building,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines. “The team has worked countless hours on perfecting this machine.”

Both companies are being partly funded by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, along with Firefly Aerospace from Texas. Some $2.6 billion has been set aside for these CLPS missions by 2028, which will test many of the technologies and techniques NASA hopes to employ on its Artemis human landings that are set to begin later this decade. But there is also a hope these companies will spur a new lunar economy that will encourage more private companies to head to the Moon.

The market potential for such services remains unclear. “There certainly is no killer application at the moment,” says Caleb Williams, vice president at the US space analyst firm Quilty Space. Yet NASA’s financial commitment both to CLPS and its overall Artemis program to return humans to the Moon shows there are opportunities for companies like Intuitive Machines.

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“What they are doing is positioning themselves for what is going to be a large amount of government spend on lunar surface activities,” says Williams. “If you can say, hey, I successfully landed, that gives you a lot of credibility.”

If successful, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines will be the first private missions to the Moon; the last two attempts, Israel’s Beresheet lander in February 2019 and Japan’s Hakuto-R mission in April 2023, both failed. Astrobotics is targeting a region known as the “Ocean of Storms” on the Moon’s near side, while Intuitive Machines will head to the Moon’s south pole.

The lunar south pole is of high value both for potential scientific discoveries and local resources. Scientists believe the Moon’s south pole is rich in water ice, which could be used to produce rocket fuel and eventually be processed into drinking water. China, Europe, India, and Russia have all stated their intention to try and utilize this resource; only India has reached the location so far.

Nova-C will take five days to reach the Moon following its launch, entering lunar orbit for a day before finally attempting a nerve-wracking landing on the Moon. It is targeting the rim of a crater at the Moon’s south pole called Malapert A for the landing, having been asked by NASA to move its landing site earlier this year. “We’ll be further south than anybody’s been,” says Altemus. “That’s a fantastic place to set up a research station.”

The stationary Nova-C lander will carry with it several instruments to study the Moon’s surface. The goal of the mission is “scientific discovery and engineering technologies,” says Altemus. While some instruments are supplied by NASA, others are from partners that have paid for space on the lander, highlighting potential commercial opportunities from future Moon landings.

That will include studying the lunar dust, which is “superfine like talcum powder” says Altemus, to see how it interacts with the dust plume of the lander. Other studies will measure radio waves on the Moon, while there will also be a camera to take images of the Milky Way from the surface of the Moon. “It’ll be an interesting view that no one’s ever seen of the Milky Way galaxy,” says Altemus.

Other instruments will monitor the touchdown of Nova-C, including a 360-degree camera supplied by Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Ohio that will fall to the surface ahead of the lander and take pictures of the landing. And there’s even a piece of fabric for US clothing company Columbia Sportswear on board, perhaps a brazen example of potential private partnerships. “It’s partly a sponsorship and partly an engineering technology demonstration,” says Altemus.

Next year, a second lander from Intuitive Machines will include a NASA-built drill to attempt to dig for water ice under the lunar surface and a small “hopping” vehicle to jump into one of the Moon’s pitch-black craters, thought to be rich in water ice. Another mission from Astrobotic will carry NASA’s VIPER rover and attempt to drive into such a crater.

Missions to the Moon remain risky investment opportunities, highlighted by the failures of Beresheet and Hakuto-R. Setbacks are likely to happen again, and how commercial lunar companies cope with such failures remains to be seen. “It’s very tough for a public company to be involved in these high visibility failures,” says Williams.

Yet, if NASA is willing to keep funding commercial landers, alongside a hopefully steadily increasing trickle of private investment, there could be exciting times ahead. Work on the vehicles that will take humans to the moon, including NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket and SpaceX’s even more massive Starship, is charging ahead. While NASA has tried and failed to return to the Moon before, things feel decidedly different this time.

The beginning of 2024 could see NASA’s bid to have private companies begin lunar landings succeed. Later in the year, humans will hopefully fly around the Moon alongside subsequent private lunar landings. It’s a busy time for Moon fans. Who will be along for the ride?

Jonathan O'Callaghan
Noah Watson
December 12, 202311:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)