This past week at the Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, two commercial landing opportunities panels were organized that included representatives from Moon Express, Astrobotic, Blue Origin, iSpace, Masten Space, PT Scientists, Team Indus, Masten and Ceres Robotics.
The idea for the Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop came from the NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG). The workshop goal is “intended to produce a set of priority targets for near-term landed missions on the Moon, primarily, but not exclusively, from commercial exploration firms interested in pursuing ventures on the Moon.”
It’s fascinating that with much of the current buzz about a Deep Space Gateway, that NASA is looking beyond that potential program, and undertook to organize a workshop focused on future commercial operations on the moon. But this workshop was organized in part by NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC), and included Greg Schmidt as the co-chair. Greg, and ARC, are known for thinking outside the box. Having LEAG, which is based at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston as the partner, brought in many of the planetary scientists.
For the workshop, participants were told to discuss the merits of a proposed landing site in terms of its benefit(s), involving one or more of the following:
- short term reconnaissance and/or surface science experiments (< one lunar day)
- sample return
- long term monitoring (days, years)
- regional roving experiments (ala MSL)
- technological demonstrations that feed forward
- technological demonstrations for ISRU
Canada is partner in NASA’s SSERVI through the Canadian Lunar Research Network (CLRN) based out of Western University and had representatives there.
The First Commercial Landing Opportunities Panel
The panellists were given five minutes each to discuss their company and plans. All of them took more time then they were allotted, no surprise there. That took close to 30 minutes leaving another 30 minutes a moderated panel discussion followed by audience Q&A.
The initial focus of three of the companies, Blue Origin, Astrobotic and Moon Express, is to provide a delivery service to the moon. Think of them as FexEx, UPS etc.
Blue Origin offers the added benefit of being able to use their New Glenn launch vehicle, when ready, to send their Blue Moon delivery vehicle (lander) to the moon. Until New Glenn is ready, Blue Origin says their Blue Moon spacecraft can be launched using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V and even NASA’s Space Launch System, also when ready.
Astrobotic and Moon Express both rely on commercial launch providers to deliver their spacecraft to the surface of the moon. And both have plans beyond simply being a delivery service.
iSpace from Japan is focused on proving the capabilities of their technology demonstration rover at this point. So don’t have a landing spacecraft at this time, and are also relying on another company to get their rover to the surface of the moon. iSpace is also the company that manages Japan’s entry, Hakuto, in the Google Lunar X Prize. With the recent news that Team Indus of India having failed to secure the funds to pay for their launch, Hakuto finds itself without a ride to the moon to win the Lunar X Prize. However, iSpace had a contingency plan in place to get their rover to the moon, though not in time to win the Lunar X Prize. They secured a flight with Astrobotic.
The Second Commercial Landing Opportunities Panel
The panellists for the second commercial lunar landing opportunities panel were Rolf Erdmann, PT Scientists, Adithya Kothandhapani, Team INDUS, Sean Mahoney, Masten Space Systems and Michael Sims, Ceres Robotics, Inc.
PT Scientists, a Google Lunar X Prize entrant based out of Berlin, is looking to send a rover to the moon to visit the Apollo 17 landing site. They’ve partnered with car manufacturer Audi on the rover. To land the rover on the moon they are developing the Autonomous Landing and Navigation Module which they call ALINA. One of the instruments on their first spacecraft would be the VEGA Gravimeter developed by Toronto based GEDEX with funding from the Canadian Space Agency.
Adithya Kothandhapani of Team Indus discussed the Lunar X Prize entrants lander and rover, going into some technical detail as well as their landing site. Unfortunately for Team Indus, it is unknown when they might do the missions after coming up short on their fundraising efforts.
Sean Mahoney, CEO of Masten Space Systems said that while the 14 year old company has been quiet of late, “we’ve been working hard on maturing our technology, and not only maturing our technology, but maturing our approach to this emerging industry.” Masten plans on being another one of those FedEx delivery type services to the moon. Mahoney was adamant that now is the time for missions to the moon, and that it won’t be just a single mission and then wait 10 years, but rather possibly within “10 months.” Masten over the years has developed five reusable landers that have flown over 400 test flights and won several NASA contracts and won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE X Prize.
Ceres Robotics makes robotics tools and integrates them for aspiring commercial lunar landers and rovers.
It should be noted that while both commercial panels included had a total of eight companies, several other companies were present at the workshop including Deep Space Industries.
The Landing Selection Process
Most of the workshop focused on the science, including the geology of the moon and what you need to know in selecting a site.
Some of the notable sessions included Ben Bussey, NASA’s Chief Exploration Scientist talking about Strategic Known Gaps (SKGs) Addressed by Lunar Surface Science and International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) Landing Sites.
Another was by Jack Schmitt, the only geologist to land on the moon on Apollo 17. His session was on “How the Last Apollo Samples were Collected.”
Another session focused on “Current Payloads and Landing Site Selection Processes.”
The full list of sessions and video, over 20, is available from the program. There’s a lot of detail in these presentations, too much to summarize here. However, what is clear is that we’re very close to sending the first commercial lander mission to the moon. Some companies are hopeful that it can be this year, Moon Express counts itself as one of those, while several others are planning on going in 2019. On the government side, China will be sending the Chang’e 4 to the far side of the moon late this year.
A workshop report will be delivered to NASA’s HQ Planetary Science Division by the end of the month.
SpaceQ recently interviewed two of the companies involved in commercial lunar endeavours.