All about NASA’s lunar exploration program and news

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter takes up an important place in the American lunar exploration program

– News of December 11, 2018 –

NASA is focused on its new lunar plans. It mobilizes resources that can be ready very quickly. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program will have to be able to send the first US payloads next year. In this new lunar effort, NASA benefits from the work done under the previous US lunar program, named Constellation, which did not succeed. This program laid the foundation for the SLS launcher and the Orion spacecraft, just before being canceled by the Obama administration. Constellation also sent a lunar orbiter called LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), which is still active and should have enough propellant until the middle of the next decade.

LRO was placed in lunar orbit in 2009. The mission of the orbiter was to identify the resources and landing sites for the remainder of the Constellation program. A decade and two program changes later, this mission becomes relevant again. NASA had invested half a billion dollars in the mission. The US space agency will now be able to take advantage of the 3D and high resolution maps that the orbiter has created. NASA wants to use the LRO to monitor the moon landings of its new payloads.

Under the CLPS program, nine companies are competing to deposit NASA’s payloads on the Moon. The teams working on these projects have started collaborating with the LRO teams. The goal is to synchronize the landings of their lander with an overflight of the spacecraft.

NASA also wants to provide the international community with the capabilities of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter next year as at least three missions to the Moon are planned. An Israeli organization that participated in the Google Lunar X Prize should attempt to land a lander in February 2019. The Indian space agency (ISRO) will also launch the mission Chandrayaan-2, which includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Chandrayaan-2 is also scheduled for the beginning of next year. The third scheduled mission is Chang’e 5, the Chinese mission back lunar samples. On that side, things are a bit more complicated. NASA complains of a lack of communication from the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA), and collaborations between the two organizations are in any case outlawed in US law.

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NASA has selected private partners for its lunar program

– News of December 4, 2018 –

NASA is still at the very beginning of its new lunar program. However, we know that the US space agency wants to involve private industry and the “New Space”. On November 29, NASA announced the identity of the nine companies that will be able to compete under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This program must be able to put useful charges on the surface of the Moon. NASA will only be the client of private companies, which must develop their own vehicles to reach the lunar surface.

In the list of the nine selected companies, there are some well-known names and others that are much less well known. Lockheed Martin and Draper have been used to NASA contracts since the time of the Moon race. Martin was one of two finalists for the construction of the Apollo control module, but the company was ultimately unsuccessful. Draper had designed the control and navigation systems that had allowed NASA to put men on the moon. Lockheed Martin will propose a lunar lander called McCandless, directly inspired by the architecture of InSight that has just landed on the planet Mars. It will provide electricity, communication and thermal regulation for a payload of up to 100 kg. Draper’s lander is called Artemis 7 because the instruments developed by Draper have already landed six times on the Moon. It will be built in collaboration with General Atomics, ispace and Spaceflight Industries.

The other seven companies selected are all part of the “New Space” sector. They were created after the year 2000. Some of them are one or two years old. For example, ORBITBeyond was created in 2018. The company will resume the work of Team Hindus, an Indian company that competed in the Google Lunar X Prize. Astrobotic Systems and Moon Express come also from the same competition. These two companies have the advantage of working on small landers for several years now. Moon Express could try a first lunar mission on its own within a year or two.

The presence of Firefly Aerospace in the NASA’s list is perhaps the most surprising because the company is more known for developing rockets than landers. In addition, Firefly Aerospace went bankrupt in 2017 before being renamed. But the company actually seems to be working on a lunar lander. It has the advantage of being able to propose a complete architecture composed of a rocket and a lunar lander. All other participants in the program will have to find their launcher.

NASA’s list is complemented by Deep Space Systems, Intuitive Machines and Masten Space Systems, which introduced concepts of lunar landers. This first selection of NASA is still vague about the dates and number of missions that will be awarded to each company. We only know that the program’s budget will not exceed $ 2.6 billion over 10 years. But that could evolve very quickly. NASA could validate the first of these missions for launching next year. The US Space Agency is looking for payloads that could be quickly integrated on these landers. We imagine that the first missions will be relatively modest with a gradual rise.

NASA continues to detail its lunar program, still highly criticized

– News of November 20, 2018 –

NASA says its plan to return to the moon. Last Thursday, at a meeting of the National Council for Space, officials from NASA and the US government discussed their options to move in this direction. This is the opportunity to better know the different lunar objectives that the United States of America set. In addition to its space station into Moon orbit, NASA would like to conduct various missions to the surface of the Moon.

The US space agency wants to exploit the CubeSat format to advance lunar exploration. This lunar mission based on these tiny spacecrafts could thus take place over the next ten years. During the same period, NASA wants to send 10 light landers on the surface of the Moon, as part of its program of collaboration with private partners. The first contracts should arrive next month. Two heavier landers including a rover complete the robotic exploration phase. These missions will improve the accuracy of landings on the Moon, test the techniques of exploitation of lunar resources or assess the potential of nuclear energy for exploration of the Moon. This may be an opportunity to test the Kilopower fission reactor.

Manned flight occupies much of NASA’s plan, starting with the Orion spacecraft’s first two lunar exploration missions. Orion should bring a crew for a Moon flyover mission. By 2028, NASA also wants to complete the LOP-G station in lunar orbit. The US space agency plans a decade to bring men to the surface of the Moon, so it would go through a descent module that should be ready in 2024, and a reusable lift module. A reusable transfer vehicle would be responsible for transport between the LOP-G and the low orbit of the Moon.

NASA claims to be able to achieve this lunar plan within the limits of its current budget. This did not prevent sharp criticism from some of the personalities present at the meeting. Harrison Schmitt and Buzz Aldrin, two former Apollo astronauts, say the program lacks ambition. For them, 2028 is too late to bring men back to the Moon. Buzz Aldrin also seems particularly opposed to the LOP-G, which he considers a waste of time that does not bring much for the final goal. Michael Douglas Griffin, a former NASA administrator, went one step further by calling the LOP-G a stupid architecture. Griffin also believes that even if for the moment China is taking its time, it would probably be able to bring men to the Moon by developing a program over six or seven years. For Griffin, if the United States of America wants to retain its leadership, it must be simpler and more direct. It would mean the abandon of the LOP-G project.

In addition, the Canadian space agency recently announced that it is did not decide yet if it participates in the LOP-G. NASA must also face the prospect of a budget cut in 2020. It may have to cut up to a billion dollars from its budget, which would lead to arbitration between its various programs. The lunar plans of NASA are still far from seducing everyone, in the United States of America and elsewhere. The robotic exploration part of the Moon should start without too much trouble. We will know in a few weeks the identity of the companies selected to go depositing payloads on the surface of the Moon. 31 companies responded to the call for tenders.

NASA begins selection of payloads that will be carried to the Moon

– News of October 23, 2018 –

NASA’s plan for its lunar return is divided in two. On the one hand, the US Space Agency is making a lot of effort to create an inhabited space station in the cislunary orbit, the LOP-G. On the other hand, it wants to conduct a new robotic exploration of the Moon’s surface. This initiative could prepare the return of the Man on the lunar soil. The robotic part of this plan will be entrusted largely to private companies. NASA has said it wants to buy flights to the Moon by contracting with private partners in the coming months. These flights could start from 2020. Moon Express, Blue Origin and other companies could very quickly take the NASA payloads to the moon.

NASA issued a new tender for payloads on October 18. The objective is to develop 8 to 12 experiments that could embark on the first lunar lander. In this document we distinguish two main ambitions. The return of NASA to the surface of the Moon will first be an opportunity to do science, not only to study the Moon but also to study the Earth and the Sun from the Moon. The US space agency seems particularly interested in the way heat spreads in the lunar crust, or the effects of solar winds and dust on the surface of the moon. NASA’s other ambition is to use these experiments to test the technologies needed for the return of humans to the moon. Local production of propellants and 3D printing of structures should be of particular interest to NASA.

Given the deadlines that NASA communicates, these experiences need to be developed quickly. For the moment, NASA aims to send them on the Moon between March 2020 and December 2021. This is why a special interest will be granted to projects already well advanced. Alternative experiences, ongoing academic projects, or instruments using existing pieces will be favored. NASA is already expecting a number of proposals but hopes to be surprised by others.

There is little detail on the constraints that payloads will face. They must have a mass of less than 15kg and a power consumption of less than 8 watts. This approach of developing payloads in parallel with the development of the lunar landing gear seems to worry many people, including within NASA. Developing a payload without knowing the constraints of the lunar lander and without knowing the landing site on the Moon is not comfortable.

The part concerning the robotic exploration of NASA’s new lunar program seems to be advancing at a steady pace anyway. By outsourcing launch and landing functions to the Moon, the US Space Agency hopes to maintain control over the costs of this project. The deadlines presented by NASA are very close, but they remain exposed to political risk in the event of a change in the White House in 2020.

NASA unveils the roadmap of its lunar program

– News of October 2, 2018 –

NASA wants to return to the Moon. This became concrete with the signing of the Space Policy Directive 1 by President Trump in December 2017. The overall goal is clear but the details are still a bit unclear. NASA, however, has published a roadmap on September 24, which provides some additional information. In this document, there are two calendars. The first calendar concerns the lunar orbit and the second calendar concerns the lunar surface.

The LOP-G station is at the center of the project of manned missions in the lunar orbit. Starting this year, NASA plans to finalize the final design of the space station. Commercial and international partners should also be known by the end of December. In 2019, the US Space Agency will decide on the final orbit of the LOP-G. The parameters taken into account will be the cost and the possibility of being visited by several space vehicles. So there will not be only Orion to serve the space station, which may be an opportunity for the new Russian Federatsiya spaceship, or for a commercial vehicle.

The Orion spacecraft will be launched by the SLS in 2020 for an unmanned mission around the Moon. In the same year, NASA will decide on the scientific payload that will be incorporated into the LOP-G. It will also be an opportunity to develop the space station logistics chain based on launchers and cargo ships available. The lunar program of NASA is expected to accelerate in 2022, which should be the year of the first manned flight of Orion with a flight over the moon. In parallel, the first module of the LOP-G, the LOP-G PPE, will be placed in its orbit. The assembly of the space station should continue for the rest of the decade. NASA will then study the opportunity for the LOP-G to become a step towards the planet Mars.

But NASA does not intend to limit itself to lunar orbit. It has also begun to create a plan for the surface of the Moon, which could become concrete fairly quickly. Starting this year, the US Space Agency should decide to buy commercial payloads for the Moon. NASA wants private industry to offer solutions to deliver cargo on the surface of the Moon. These flights could start as early as 2019, perhaps with Moon Express. The Blue Moon project of Blue Origin is probably also studied.

Next year, NASA will set a date for the demonstration flight of an unmanned lunar lander. The US space agency wants to send in 2029 the first American on the Moon since 1972. In 2020, NASA is expected to make a decision regarding the overall architecture of its ambitions on the Moon’s surface, according to the development of the lander. If the initial results from its partnership with the private sector are conclusive, NASA could order additional cargo to the Moon for exploration rovers, for example. Around 2024, the US space agency will decide whether or not this return to the Moon can be accompanied by a permanent base. But before, it has to conduct demonstration missions of local resource exploitation for the construction or manufacture of propellants.

Image by Pixabay

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