With five robotic flights to the Moon already booked through 2023, and a sixth award expected soon, NASA is seeking suites of new science investigations and technology experiments for future commercial lunar deliveries as part of the Artemis program.
The agency issued its Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) Nov. 5, for payloads to be delivered on flights to the lunar surface in late 2023 and early 2024. This call for payloads is expected to be the first of an annual call for payloads that will make up the Science Mission Directorate’s portion of the manifest for future flights within the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payloads Services, or CLPS, initiative.
“Demand for access to the Moon is rapidly increasing as our Artemis program takes shape, and we’re proud to support a growing lunar economy with our CLPS project,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re on track for two flights to the Moon per year, with the first six already ordered or soon awarded. This new call will enable breakthrough science, and especially advance our understanding of the Moon ahead of a human return in 2024.”
The formal PRISM solicitation builds on an earlier Request for Information that requested payload concepts from the U.S. science community for lunar surface investigations. Responses to this RFI informed and guided upcoming solicitations for opportunities to send instruments to the Moon. NASA is seeking science-driven suites of instruments and technology demonstrations for delivery to the Reiner Gamma (lunar magnetic anomaly on the lunar near side) in 2023 and the Schrödinger Basin (impact melt on the lunar far side) of the Moon in 2024.
For the initial phase, Step 1 responses to the solicitation are due Dec. 11, 2020. Proposals must identify only one of the two offered locations. Some technology development and maturation within the proposed project is allowed, but the science justification and ability to deliver on schedule are top considerations for selection. Additional details are available in the formal solicitation online.
As part of the CLPS project, NASA has already made the following awards:
Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines each have one task order award for deliveries in 2021. Astrobotic will carry 11 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a larger crater on the near side of the Moon, and Intuitive Machines will carry five payloads to the southwest portion of Mare Serenitatis, near the Montes Apenninus region on the Moon.
Masten Space Systems has one task order award to deliver and operate eight payloads – with nine science and technology instruments – to the lunar South Pole.
By the end of the year NASA will select a vendor to deliver a suite of payloads to study geophysics within the Mare Crisium basin on the Moon in 2023.
NASA and its partners will continue to study and explore more of the Moon in the coming years as part of the Artemis program. The agency continues to advance its modern lunar exploration program and is preparing to establish a sustainable presence at the lunar South Pole by the end of the decade. Knowledge gained on and around the Moon will help prepare the agency for its next giant leap in exploration – human exploration of Mars.
NASA’s Artemis program has sparked excitement around the world and catalyzed new interest in exploring the Moon as the agency prepares to land the first woman and next man on the lunar South Pole in 2024. After that, NASA and its growing list of global partners will establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade.
NASA will build on the momentum of that human return mission in four years and plans to send crew to the Moon about once per year thereafter. To give astronauts a place to live and work on the Moon, the agency’s Artemis Base Camp concept includes a modern lunar cabin, a rover and even a mobile home. Early missions will include short surface stays, but as the base camp evolves, the goal is to allow crew to stay at the lunar surface for up to two months at a time.
“On each new trip, astronauts are going to have an increasing level of comfort with the capabilities to explore and study more of the Moon than ever before,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human spaceflight at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With more demand for access to the Moon, we are developing the technologies to achieve an unprecedented human and robotic presence 240,000 miles from home. Our experience on the Moon this decade will prepare us for an even greater adventure in the universe – human exploration of Mars.”
Where to stay
Crew will return to the lunar surface for the first time this century beginning with the Artemis III mission. From lunar orbit, two astronauts will take the first new ride to the surface of the Moon, landing where no humans have ever been: the lunar South Pole. This is the ideal location for a future base camp given its potential access to ice and other mineral resources.
On the first few missions, the human landing system will double as lunar lodging, offering life support systems to support a short crew stay on the Moon. In the future, NASA envisions a fixed habitat at the Artemis Base Camp that can house up to four astronauts for a month-long stay.
Since 2016, NASA has worked with several companies on their habitation systems and designs, assessing internal layouts, environmental control and life support systems, and outer structure options, including rigid shells, expandable designs, and hybrid concepts. The agency is currently working with industry to refine ideas for a combination home and office in orbit, recently testing full-size prototypes.
What to wear
Even with minimal surface support in place on early missions, astronauts will embark on at least a week-long expedition on the Moon. Crew will work by day in their modern spacesuits – using new tools to collect samples and setting up a variety of experiments.
These next generation spacesuits will provide increased mobility, modern communications and a more robust life support system than its Apollo predecessors. With improved functionality and movement, crew can conduct more complex experiments and collect more unique geologic samples.
NASA is building the new suits for the initial lunar landing and will transition the design and manufacturing to Industry for follow-on production.
Traveling in style
NASA has proposed two lunar surface transportation systems: a lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) and a mobile home and office referred to as a habitable mobility platform.
The LTV will be an unpressurized, or open-top vehicle, that astronauts can drive in their spacesuits for more than 12 miles from a camp site. Earlier this year, NASA asked American companies to send ideas to develop an LTV that handle the rough surface of the Moon as well as push the boundaries of power generation and energy storage. The agency is evaluating those responses and hopes to leverage innovations in commercial all-terrain vehicles, military rovers and more. Such a vehicle may also be autonomous and capable of driving on pre-programmed paths or could be operated remotely from Earth to conduct additional science and exploration activities.
In addition to the LTV, a pressurized rover will greatly expand lunar surface exploration capabilities to the next level. Pressurization means that astronauts can be in the vehicle in their regular clothing as opposed to wearing their spacesuit inside too. This will provide more comfort to work as they cross the lunar terrain in their mobile habitat and explore large areas. When they’re ready to go outside to collect samples or set up experiments, they would need to put their spacesuits on again.
NASA is in the early idea stage for a pressurized rover – formulating concepts and evaluating potential science and exploration rover missions around the South Pole.
What to do
Breakthrough discoveries from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite have shown the Moon is rich with resources, such as ice and greater than average access to light, which could support Artemis explorers and provide new opportunities for scientific discoveries and commercial enterprising activities. The unexplored south polar region provides unique opportunities to unlock scientific secrets about the history and evolution of the Earth and Moon, as well as our solar system.
Harvesting lunar resources could lead to safer, more efficient operations with less dependence on supplies delivered from Earth. NASA plans to send the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the lunar South Pole before crew. Arriving via a commercial Moon delivery, mobile robot will get a close-up view of the distribution and concentration of ice that could eventually be harvested to support human exploration farther into the solar system. We will learn how to spend more time on the lunar surface as well as prepare to future trips to Mars by conducting life science research and learning to mitigate hazards associated with space exploration.
What to know
The Sun hovers over the lunar South Pole horizon continuously throughout the day and year, providing a near-constant source of energy for solar power opportunities. There is no single location, however, that avoids periods of darkness. This means NASA must plan for early Artemis systems to survive the extremely cold environment without power, to build in the capability to store power for up to eight days.
For longer-term work trips to the Artemis Base Camp, NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative is working with the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense to develop a nuclear fission surface power unit that can continuously provide 10 kW of power – the average annual power consumption of a home here on Earth. This small power plant will be able to power and recharge the other basic elements of the Artemis Base Camp and allow greater flexibility for mission planning by easing the requirement for continuous access to sunlight in a distinct location during a specific timeframe.
What to pack
While NASA will need to bring or send ahead all the supplies it needs for early Artemis missions, the agency wants to know what others would pack for their trips to the Moon. It’s not too late to submit photos of your #NASAMoonKit online.
This decade, the Artemis program will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface. As our lunar presence grows with the help of commercial and international partners, someday the Moon could be the ultimate destination for all to explore.
As part of the Artemis program, NASA aims to establish sustainable exploration on the Moon by the end of the decade. To support that vision, our team in space tech continues to initiate public-private partnerships to develop the infrastructure, such as communications and power, needed for a long-term lunar presence.
NASA’s current lunar concept calls for an Artemis Base Camp on the South Pole, built with commercial and international partners. A lunar terrain vehicle (LTV), a mobile home and a lunar cabin on the surface would provide astronauts the ability to explore more of the lunar surface and stay on the Moon for longer periods of time than ever before.
Just like here on Earth, space cars and homes will require power and communications capabilities. Unlike what’s often depicted in sci-fi films though, there are many challenges to communicating in space, such as delays and bandwidth, among others. Technology advancements could make lunar calling plans much easier in the near future.
Whether our astronauts are traveling to the surface aboard a modern human landing system, exploring during a moonwalk, roving around in the LTV, working in a mobile home on the Moon, or even aboard the Gateway in lunar orbit, communication is critical between Earth and among crew in all these activities planned for the Artemis program.
Inspired by Earth-based communications technologies, Nokia Bell Labs recently proposed to NASA the first cellular communications network on the Moon. Their idea is to deploy an end-to-end communication system on the lunar surface using LTE technology. The initial proposed Nokia network would be used for proximity communications on the lunar surface, providing wireless network coverage around the landing module. In the future, this technology and its evolution also could be used for providing communications to and from a spacecraft orbiting the Moon.
During our evaluation of this proposal, we found it’s a promising technology that could meet needs for the agency as well as other potential lunar customers. Nokia would use a commercial Moon delivery service provider, an initiative created by NASA, to deliver hardware to the lunar surface in late 2022.
That proposal was one of 15 “tipping point” technologies we recently selected and NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will invest in to advance commercial systems supporting human exploration of the Moon and Mars.
Through our Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative we are targeting communications as one of its top areas to advance technology readiness levels for deep space. Another surface innovation we want to advance is power generation. With a constant energy source from the Sun for solar power or the potential to extract and convert resources on the Moon to expand exploration capabilities, NASA is considering many options to power a broad range of systems in orbit and on the surface of the Moon. In response to the same tipping point solicitation, we selected several proposals related to power generation and energy storage.
Precision Combustion aims to mature a deep space fuel product that could be used for power generation and energy storage. Using a modern solid oxide fuel cell stack developed by the company, lunar customers like NASA would be able to generate power directly from propellants (methane/liquid oxygen) and in-situ resources. The proposal received high marks from NASA because of the technology readiness level, maturation plan, and fact that it can be used anywhere on the Moon.
Long-term, the use of space-based resources is key to reducing the cost of deep space travel and reducing dependence on supply shipments from Earth. Precision Combustion believes its approach could result in as much as 10 times the reduction in the cost of equivalent power generation.
Both of these technologies will receive milestone-based investments from the agency, with Nokia receiving an award of about $14 million, and Precision Combustion receiving $2.4 million.
We reviewed dozens of proposals and found these two responses plus 13 others to have some of the highest potential to provide substantial benefit to government and other customers if they reach the market.
The expected combined award value for our most recent tipping point investments is more than $370 million. We look forward to partnering with Nokia and Precision Combustion as well as Eta Space, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Alpha Space, Astrobotic Technology, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems (on two proposals), pH matter, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Maxar Technologies, and Teledyne Energy Systems. The firm-fixed price contracts with each company could last up to five years, and the goal is to help the technology reach a successful in-space demonstration without further government investments before ultimately becoming commercially available.
This decade, the Artemis program will lay the foundation for a sustained long-term presence on the lunar surface. As humanity’s lunar presence and capabilities grow, we look forward to using our knowledge gained from activities on the Moon to prepare for our next giant leap – human exploration of Mars – as early as the 2030s.
– Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate