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aerospace Artemis Astrobotic astronomy CLPS Eta Space Intuitive Machines Lockheed Martin Masten nasa spacex United Launch Alliance

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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aerospace astronomy CLPS lunar lander Masten spacex

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.

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