NASA may be headed towards a big strategic win in the next few months. With the scheduled launch of Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One on January 8th, and the coming Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission scheduled for mid-February, the agency could see the vindication of its long-term strategy for lunar mission privatization, and take another step towards a permanent American presence on the Moon.
Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative
The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative is, at its core, a public-private partnership for building a lunar delivery service. NASA is contracting with companies that are willing and (eventually) able to deliver payloads from the Earth’s surface to the lunar surface, usually in concert with a private launch provider such as SpaceX, ULA or Rocket Lab. It’s part of NASA’s objective to move away from services that can be provided effectively by private enterprise, exemplified by how it’s approaching low Earth orbit (LEO) and especially with the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program intended to follow-on the International Space Station. (ISS)
Just as in LEO, NASA will serve as an anchor customer, with these companies delivering a significant amount of NASA payloads over the long term. According to NASA, the cumulative maximum contract value is $2.6 billion through 2028, so these companies know that they have a baseline amount of demand that they can rely on for their long-term planning, as well as providing sorely-needed early funding to pay for R&D.
NASA has described this program as “the leading edge of the Artemis campaign,” and that its payloads will “perform science experiments, test technologies, and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA explore the Moon and prepare for human missions.”
Three companies were initially chosen for CLPS contracts in 2019: Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic, and OrbitBeyond. Over the subsequent years, OrbitBeyond bowed out, but a number of other companies joined CLPS: Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace, Ceres Robotics, Deep Space Systems, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Masten Space Systems joined as well, but filed for bankruptcy in 2022, with nearly all its assets eventually acquired by Astrobotic.
As covered in SpaceQ, Canada has a somewhat similar program, the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP). LEAP is less focused on delivering payloads to the Moon, and more focused on providing support focused on technology development and capability demonstrations to a number of different Canadian companies.
Astrobotic’s bid to be first on the Moon
Both of the upcoming lunar missions faced delays. In the case of Astrobotic, the original date given was May of 2023, but delays with the ULA Vulcan Centaur launcher persisted. The mission was delayed from May to June, and then to December, before an issue with the Vulcan wet dress rehearsal meant that it had to delay the launch to January 8th.
IM-1, meanwhile, was delayed from January to mid-February owing to what a spokesperson for Intuitive Machines described as “unfavorable weather conditions [that] resulted in shifts in the SpaceX launch manifest.”
This means that Astrobotic, with its Peregrine lander, is now positioned to be the first private company to land on the Moon, after software issues caused a last-minute failure in the ispace lander in May of 2023. It’s been a long time coming for Astrobotic; the company was formed in 2007 by Carnegie Mellon University professor Red Whittaker as a bid to win the Google Lunar X-PRIZE for a private landing on the Moon, and it’s taken Astrobotic a decade and a half to finally reach the point where they can fulfill that original goal.
Last year, when Astrobotic was still aiming for a May launch, CEO John Thornton said that the launch will be “the culmination of countless hours over many years by hundreds of people;” people who worked to “to design and assemble the lander, to create the lunar delivery market, and to establish the facilities and supply chain needed to ensure the success of commercial space missions like Peregrine’s.”
In a recent comment in December, Thornton again credited Astrobotic’s workers and stakeholders, expressing his gratitude for “customers, vendors, stakeholders, community partners, government officials, and of course, our team, who have been integral to our mission of making space accessible to the world.”
While Peregrine will be launching on January 8th, it will only be reach the Moon in late February, and will (if all goes well) land on Gruithuisen Gamma on February 23rd. Thornton is all too aware that it won’t be easy, however: in comments to the Washington Post, he said that “it’s certainly a daunting challenge” and that he will be “terrified and thrilled all at once every stage.”
As Peregrine’s a comparatively small lander—according to the payload user’s guide (PDF), this first mission only has 35 kg of non-NASA payload capacity out of 90 kg total payload capacity—payloads are generally limited in size. Nevertheless, they break down into three main types: rovers, scientific instruments, and information/memorial payloads.
There are two rover types. The Iris rover from Carnegie Mellon University is a 2kg “nano rover” with what they describe as a “shoebox sized chassis and bottle cap wheels,” albeit made of carbon fiber. The other is a group of five tiny 60 gram Colmena rovers from Mexico, which will be (according to Astrobotic’s manifest) “catapulted onto the lunar surface” upon deployment.
In terms of scientific instruments, most are NASA equipment, which fits NASA serving as the anchor customer for CLPS. NASA has the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), a Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), a Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), a Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS), and the Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS), all studying various parts of the lunar environment. Germany also provided the M42 Radiation Detector.
The other set of payloads are primarily informational, artistic, or memorial in nature. Most notable may be the Arch Libraries’ Lunar Library II, which contains “more than 60 million pages of information” including all of English Wikipedia, a linguistic key provided by the Rosetta Project, music and film archives, and a number of private collections. According to Astrobotic, it was etched onto nickel nanofiche and “never decays.”
Canadian art organization Incandence has included a Lunar Codex, which includes a variety of artistic works in various mediums from 162 countries and territories, including 67 Indigenous peoples. Germany’s DHL is also including the “DHL MoonBox”, which includes 28 memento capsules from Canada, Nepal, Germany, Belgium, the USA, and the UK.
Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C
Next up after Astrobotic is Intuitive Machines. Its IM-1 mission will be launching IM’s Nova-C lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 sometime in mid-February, though the actual launch date is currently unknown, as is the expected date of lunar arrival. It is planned to land at Malapert A, near the Moon’s south pole.
It has a similar payload capacity to the Peregrine at 100kg, but available information suggests that the Nova-C will primarily carry NASA scientific payloads. including another Laser Retro-Reflector Array, the Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator, the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), the Radio-wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo Electron Sheath (ROLSES), another Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) payload, and a Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG).
Notably, it will also include the “DOGE-1” CubeSat, which was planned by the Geometric Energy Corporation and paid for entirely by the “Dogecoin” cryptocurrency. DOGE-1 will be jettisoned from Nova-C into lunar orbit before its landing.
Both of these missions could serve as vindications of NASA’s embrace of private enterprise, especially in the current environment where national space agencies from countries like India, Japan, and China are returning to the Moon, and plans keep growing for a permanent human presence on the Moon. It may also provide inspiration for further public-private partnerships aimed at cislunar space, and the surface of the Moon.
Nevertheless, the failures of both the private ispace mission and Russia’s recent Luna-25 mission are a reminder that “space is hard,” and that neither NASA nor these aspiring delivery companies can take anything for granted until their landers touch down safely.