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Firefly selects SpaceX to launch its lunar lander

Blue Ghost lander

WASHINGTON — Firefly Aerospace announced May 20 it selected SpaceX to launch its first lunar lander mission for NASA, the latest in a series of contract wins by SpaceX for lunar missions.

Firefly said that a SpaceX Falcon 9 will launch its Blue Ghost lunar lander in 2023 on a mission to land in Mare Crisium on the near side of the moon. The lander will be carrying 10 payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a contract it won in February, along with additional commercial payloads.

Firefly is developing its own launch vehicle, Alpha, with a first launch expected in the coming weeks. However, that rocket is not powerful enough to take Blue Ghost to the moon, requiring Firefly to purchase a launch from another launch provider.

“The high performance of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle permits a lunar transit using minimal Blue Ghost propulsion resources, thereby allowing the lander to deliver more than 150 kilograms of payload to the lunar surface,” Shea Ferring, senior vice president of spacecraft at Firefly, said in a statement.

The company has started work on the lander, including ordering long-lead items and testing the vision navigation system for the lander on a one-acre simulated lunar landscape at its Briggs, Texas, test site.

The lander is part of an effort by the company to develop spacecraft and orbital tugs for an overall space transportation system. “The lunar lander is really the first contract that validated our end-to-end space transportation paradigm that we’re trying to put forward at Firefly,” Tom Markusic, chief executive of Firefly, said in a recent interview. “Blue Ghost, the lunar lander, has really energized the spacecraft side of the business.”

With this contract, SpaceX is now launching five of the six CLPS missions awarded by NASA to date. Intuitive Machines is using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch its two lunar lander missions, the first of which is now scheduled for early 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX for its Masten Mission One lander scheduled for late 2022. Astrobotic announced April 13 that its Griffin lander, carrying the NASA VIPER rover, will launch on a Falcon Heavy.

The exception is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. It will launch on the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, currently scheduled for no earlier than late this year.

In addition to its CLPS awards, SpaceX also has NASA contracts to launch the first two elements of the lunar Gateway on a single Falcon Heavy in 2024, and to provide cargo delivery to the Gateway under a 2020 contract. SpaceX won a Human Landing System contract April 16, valued at $2.9 billion, to develop a lunar lander version of its Starship vehicle and perform one crewed mission to the lunar surface. Work on the HLS contract remains suspended while the Government Accountability Office reviews protests filed by two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics.


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Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander mission slips to 2022

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — The first lunar lander mission by Intuitive Machines, which had been scheduled for launch late this year, has been delayed to early 2022 by its launch provider, SpaceX.

Intuitive Machines had planned to launch its Nova-C lander on the IM-1 mission in the fourth quarter of this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9, carrying a combination of commercial and NASA payloads. A March 24 news release about an agreement to use the Parkes radio telescope in Australia as a ground station for the mission mentioned a launch “towards the end of 2021.”

However, in an April 23 application filed with the Federal Communications Commission to obtain S-band spectrum for the mission, Intuitive Machines said that the lander was now scheduled for launch in early 2022. The company didn’t provide a more specific launch date or a reason for the delay in its FCC filing.

Intuitive Machines spokesman Josh Marshall said April 26 that the slip was caused by its launch provider. “SpaceX informed Intuitive Machines that due to unique mission requirements the earliest available flight opportunity is in the first quarter of 2022,” he told SpaceNews.

Marshall referred questions about the “unique mission requirements” that caused the delay to SpaceX. That company did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on the topic.

The 1,908-kilogram Nova-C spacecraft will launch into a supersynchronous transfer orbit of 185 by 60,000 kilometers. Nineteen hours after launch it will carry out a translunar injection maneuver to go to the moon, performing another maneuver to enter a 100-kilometer lunar orbit. Nova-C will then attempt a landing at Mare Serenatis for a surface mission landing 14 days. Intuitive Machines said in the filing it will attempt to contact the solar-powered lander again after the 14-day lunar night, but acknowledged “is highly likely that the NOVA-C will not survive the lunar night.”

Intuitive Machines’ application with the FCC seeks to use the agency’s new streamlined processing for small satellites, even though the spacecraft weighs nearly four times the limit of 500 kilograms established by the FCC for using that process. A waiver of that mass limit, the company argues, “is appropriate and necessary in this case given extremely short-term use of the NOVA-C and the fact that it is non-Earth orbiting commercial lunar mission.” It added that it believed that it was in the public interest to waive the mass limit given the role of IM-1 in NASA’s overall Artemis lunar exploration program.

The company also seeks FCC permission to use S-band frequencies even though there is no commercial allocation for them. “Intuitive Machines is providing services on behalf of a government agency and is supported through Federal funding,” it noted in the filing, adding that it would coordinate with government users of that band to avoid interference.

The lander is carrying several payloads for NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Intuitive Machines received one of the first CLPS awards in May 2019, valued at $77 million for a mission then scheduled for launch in July 2021. Those payloads are a laser retroreflector, a lidar for navigation during landing, stereo camera system, an autonomous navigation experiment and low-frequency radio experiment.

IM-1 will also have several commercial payloads on the lander. They include a small rover from British company Spacebit, a camera that will be deployed to provide an external view of the landing, an astronomical telescope for the International Lunar Observatory Association, a radiation measurement sensor, a “passive data cache” in the form of etched metal disks and a sensor to measure propellant tank levels.

IM-1 was to be the first CLPS mission to launch, and one of two scheduled to fly this year. The other is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which received a $79.5 million award from NASA at the same time Intuitive Machines won its first CLPS contract.

Astrobotic announced its latest customer for that mission April 22. The German space agency DLR will fly a radiation sensor on that spacecraft similar to those that will fly on the Artemis 1 Orion test flight. That release stated that the launch was still scheduled for 2021, although a DLR release said the mission would go to the moon “at the end of the year.”

Peregrine will be the payload for the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. ULA is targeting a first Vulcan launch late this year, but has not provided a more specific launch date.


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Astrobotic selects Falcon Heavy to launch NASA’s VIPER lunar rover

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

WASHINGTON — Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander, carrying a NASA lunar rover, on a Falcon Heavy in 2023.

Astrobotic announced April 13 that it selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for its Griffin Mission 1 lunar lander mission, which will deliver the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) spacecraft to the south pole of the moon in late 2023. Astrobotic won a NASA competition through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program last year to transport VIPER on its Griffin lunar lander.

“Getting to the moon isn’t just about building a spacecraft, but having a complete mission solution. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completes our Griffin Mission 1 solution by providing a proven launch vehicle to carry us on our trajectory to the moon,” Daniel Gillies, director of Griffin Mission 1 at Astrobotic, said in a statement.

Astrobotic declined to disclose the terms of the deal. SpaceX publishes a list price of $90 million on its website for Falcon Heavy, although some government contracts for Falcon Heavy missions have been significantly more expensive. Astrobotic also declined to identify what other launch options it considered for the mission.

VIPER is a NASA mission to investigate permanently shadowed regions of craters at the lunar south pole that may contain deposits of water ice that could serve as resources for future crewed missions. It is designed to operate for 100 days after landing.

NASA originally planned to launch VIPER in 2022, with a mission cost of $250 million. However, NASA postponed the launch to late 2023 to provde more time for work to increase VIPER’s mission life from 14 to 100 days. That, in turn, drove up the cost of VIPER to $433.5 million, NASA disclosed in March.

VIPER is the biggest mission that is part of CLPS, a NASA initiative to purchase payload accommodations on commercial lunar landers. Astrobotic won a $199.5 million task order in June 2020 to deliver VIPER to the lunar surface on its Griffin lander.

Most of the landers flying CLPS missions selected to date will launch on SpaceX. Intuitive Machines, which won CLPS task orders for two lander missions, will launch each on Falcon 9 vehicles late this year and in 2022. Masten Space Systems selected SpaceX to provide launch services for its XL-1 lander mission, which won a CLPS award for a late 2022 mission.

Astrobotic will launch its first CLPS mission, a smaller lunar lander called Peregrine, on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur currently scheduled for late this year. Firefly Aerospace, which won the most recent CLPS award in January, has not selected a launch provider yet for its Blue Ghost lander, but noted the lander is too large to launch on the company’s own Alpha rocket.

The Astrobotic contract adds to a growing backlog for the Falcon Heavy, which has not flown since the Space Test Program (STP) 2 mission in June 2019. The next Falcon Heavy launch is expected no earlier than July, carrying a classified payload for the U.S. Space Force. Another Falcon Heavy launch for the Space Force is scheduled for late this year.

SpaceX has won NASA contracts for Falcon Heavy, including the launch of the Psyche mission the metallic asteroid of the same name in 2022 and, in February, the first two elements of the lunar Gateway in 2024. Falcon Heavy is also the front-runner for the ongoing competition to launch the Europa Clipper mission after NASA concluded that mission could not launch on the Space Launch System as originally planned.

Gillies, the Astrobotic manager for Griffin Mission 1, previously worked at SpaceX, where he was a mission integrator for the STP-2 Falcon Heavy launch. “Having previously sat on the other side of the table as a former SpaceX mission manager, I am fully aware of SpaceX’s capabilities and processes and am excited to be working with SpaceX on a mission once again,” he said.


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SpaceX wins contracts for lunar lander, environmental satellite launches

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — SpaceX secured contracts Jan. 13 for the launches of a commercial lunar lander mission backed by NASA as well as a privately funded satellite to track methane emissions.

Intuitive Machines announced that it selected SpaceX for the launch of its IM-2 lunar lander mission on a Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than 2022. IM-2 will land in the south polar region of the moon carrying payloads arranged through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in October.

The IM-2 mission will fly a drilling experiment called Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1), which will look for water ice below the lunar surface. Intuitive Machines said that, besides the PRIME-1 drill, two other NASA technology payloads will fly on the lander.

Intuitive Machines also selected SpaceX for its first lander mission, IM-1. That spacecraft is scheduled to launch later this year as one of the first two CLPS lander missions. Both missions will use a lander design called Nova-C.

“Launching Nova-C on a rocket with a proven record of reliability and outstanding value is an assurance to NASA and our commercial payload customers that IM is dedicated to sticking the landing in back-to-back moon missions,” Steve Altemus, president and chief executive of Intuitive Machines, said in a company statement.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies that have received NASA CLPS awards so far. Masten Space Systems, which won a CLPS lander mission to the south polar region of the moon in April 2020, selected SpaceX in August to launch its XL-1 lander. Masten said at the time that its SpaceX contract does not cover a specific launch vehicle, but rather a service to get the spacecraft to the moon on the company’s desired schedule.

Astrobotic, which won an initial CLPS award alongside Intuitive Machines in May 2019, will fly that mission on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur in late 2021. Astrobotic won a CLPS award in June for delivering NASA’s VIPER lunar rover to the south pole of the moon in late 2023, but has not announced the launch vehicle for that mission.

In a separate announcement, MethaneSAT, a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said it will launch its eponymous satellite on a Falcon 9 in October 2022. The spacecraft will launch through SpaceX’s smallsat rideshare program, project spokesman Jon Coifman said.

“SpaceX offers the readiness and reliability we need to deliver our instrument into orbit and begin streaming emissions data as soon as possible. We couldn’t ask for a more capable launch partner,” Steven Hamburg, MethaneSAT project colead, said in a statement.

The 350-kilogram satellite, being built by a team that includes Ball Aerospace and Blue Canyon Technologies, will perform high-resolution mapping of methane emissions, helping scientists and environmental advocates identify sources of the greenhouse gas from oil and gas industry facilities. EDF will make data from MethaneSAT freely available.

EDF received a $100 million grant Nov. 16 from the Bezos Earth Fund, which the organization will use for activities that include the completion and launch of MethaneSAT. The fund, which plans to spend $10 million on climate change initiatives, was established by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and launch vehicle company Blue Origin.


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NASA awards contracts for lunar technologies and ice prospecting payload

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — NASA has awarded more than $400 million in contracts to both demonstrate technologies needed for future lunar exploration and to send an ice-drilling payload to the south pole of the moon.

NASA announced Oct. 16 that it awarded a task order worth $47 million to Intuitive Machines, one of 14 companies in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, to deliver the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1) payload to the south pole of the moon by the end of 2022.

PRIME-1 is a 40-kilogram payload designed to look for water ice at depths of up to one meter below the lunar surface. It will test a near-infrared spectrometer, mass spectrometer and drill that NASA plans to fly on the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission in 2023.

“We’re building up our capabilities for in-situ resource utilization, utilizing the resources on the moon,” Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said at an Oct. 14 meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, a group that brings together academia, government and industry to assess technologies needed for exploration of the lunar surface. PRIME-1, he said, was one of the first experiments to support that effort.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking earlier at the same meeting, also discussed the importance of both PRIME-1 and VIPER. “These missions are critically important to help us understand where we need to go so we can get the best assessment of those volatiles,” he said, which can help the agency identify promising landing site for future crewed Artemis missions.

This mission will be the second for Intuitive Machines under the CLPS program. It received in May 2019 one of the first CLPS task orders, for a mission scheduled for launch in late 2021. Astrobotic also received one of those first task orders, as well as one in June for the VIPER mission. Masten Space Systems won a CLPS order in April for a mission to the south polar regions of the moon.

The announcement of the PRIME-1 launch came two days after NASA awarded a much larger amount of money for lunar surface technologies. The 15 awards to 14 companies, made through the agency’s Tipping Point program, are intended to advance technologies nearing maturity that could support the later, “sustainable,” phase of the Artemis program.

“NASA believes that these kinds of companies, and capabilities they’ve developed, are going to be transformational for how we explore space,” Bridenstine said at the consortium meeting, where he announced the Tipping Point awards. “But we also believe it’s going to take a little bit of a push from NASA.”

Of the $372.2 million in Tipping Point contracts, $256.1 million will go to four companies working on cryogenic fluid management technology demonstrations: Eta Space, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. All four companies plan to conduct in-space demonstrations of technologies for storage and transfer of propellants like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

“When we fly into space, we have to story cryogenic fluids for long periods of time,” Bridenstine said. “How can we manage cryogenic fluids so we can do spaceflight in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to?”

Eta Space will use its $27 million award to fly a small satellite called LOXSAT 1 to test liquid oxygen storage technologies. Eta Space is working with Rocket Lab, which will provide the Photon satellite bus LOXSAT 1 is based on and launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.

Lockheed Martin won an $89.7 million award to test liquid hydrogen storage technologies on a small satellite. The company is working with Momentus, which will host the payload on a Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle, and Relativity Space, which will launch the vehicle on its Terran 1 rocket in October 2023.

SpaceX, which has already been working with NASA on studying cryogenic fluid management technologies, won $53.2 million to demonstrate the transfer of 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks on a Starship vehicle in orbit. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, asked about orbital refueling at a Mars Society conference Oct. 16, said “we’ve got a shot of doing that in ’22.”

United Launch Alliance will use its $86.2 million award to demonstrate a “smart propulsion cryogenic system” using the Centaur upper stage of its new Vulcan rocket. That demonstration includes testing tank-to-tank transfer of propellants and “multi-week” storage.

The remaining Tipping Point funding went to 10 companies to demonstrate a range of technologies needed for landing and operating on the lunar surface. Masten Space Systems won two contracts, with a total value of $12.8 million, to demonstrate precision landing technologies with its Xogdor vehicle and a system to provide heat and power for payloads to allow them to survive the lunar night.

Other awards, ranging in value from $2.4 million to $41.6 million, cover technologies such as power systems, a payload to extract oxygen from lunar regolith, and a robotic arm. Nokia won a $14.1 million award to develop lunar communications systems using 4G wireless networks.

Intuitive Machines won the largest of those awards for development of a “hopper” that can carry a one-kilogram payload up to 2.5 kilometers across the lunar surface. “That’s going to give us high-resolution mapping of maybe volatiles on the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said. “It’s going to help us understand how to pinpoint very precise landing spots on the surface of the moon.”


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SpaceX to launch Masten lunar lander

Masten XL-1 lander

WASHINGTON — Masten Space Systems announced Aug. 26 that it signed a contract with SpaceX for the launch of its first lunar lander mission carrying a suite of payloads for NASA.

Masten said SpaceX will launch its Masten Mission One, or MM1, lunar lander mission in late 2022. The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

In an Aug. 27 interview, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said the contract does not cover a specific launch vehicle, but rather a service to get the spacecraft to the moon on the company’s desired schedule. “We’re buying the performance that we need,” he said. SpaceX will have the ability to place other spacecraft on the launch on a noninterference basis.

The mission will carry payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program under a $75.9 million contract awarded by the agency in April. The XL-1 lander will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the south polar region of the moon.

The lander has passed a preliminary design review, Mahoney said, and the company is starting to purchase long-lead items needed to build the spacecraft. Masten is also holding biweekly meetings with teams representing the nine CLPS payloads.

NASA will be an anchor customer for the mission but Masten intends to sign up others. “There is a tremendous amount of interest,” he said, including from both the public and private sector, although he didn’t mention any specific potential customers.

Mahoney said the level of customer interest soared after Masten won the CLPS award and had a firm schedule for the mission. “Once the CLPS award was made and we crossed from speculative to having a schedule, the tenor and tone of our conversations have changed dramatically.”

The limiting factor for the lander mission has not been the amount of mass available for payloads, he said, but instead positions on the lander that have views of the surface desired by payloads. “There’s a game of positioning among the various instruments so that they can get the view angles that they need and not interfere,” he said.

However, he said the company isn’t considering major changes in the lander’s design to accommodate payloads. “The design principle is the ‘pickup truck’ that can haul a bunch of different things,” he said. “We’re trying to escape the completely unique, bespoke system that does one job and one mission really well.”

Masten joins a growing list of companies and organizations using SpaceX to launch lunar lander missions. Intuitive Machines, which won one of the first NASA CLPS awards last year, selected SpaceX to launch its IM-1 lunar lander mission on a Falcon 9 in 2021. Intuitive Machines said at the time that it would be part of a rideshare mission, but didn’t state if its lander would be considered the primary payload or not.

Japanese company ispace selected SpaceX in 2018 to launch its first two lunar missions, which at the time were to be an orbiter and lander launching in 2020 and 2021 respectively on Falcon 9 rockets. The company now says both will be lander missions, launching in 2022 and 2023.

SpaceX has already launched one lunar lander mission. Beresheet, the lunar lander built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Israeli organization SpaceIL, flew as a secondary payload on the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of an Indonesian communications satellite in February 2019. Beresheet used its onboard propulsion to move from a geostationary transfer orbit to lunar orbit, but crashed attempting a landing in April 2019.

Astrobotic, which won a CLPS award last year for its Peregrine lunar lander, selected United Launch Alliance to launch that mission on the first flight of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in 2021. Astrobotic had previously contracted with ULA to launch Peregrine as a secondary payload on an Atlas 5 before winning the CLPS award.

Astrobotic won a second CLPS award June 11 when NASA selected the company to deliver its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission to the lunar south pole in late 2023. Astrobotic said at the time it would select a launch vehicle for the VIPER mission later this year.