NASA announced Thursday it has entered into a partnership with nine companies to allow the delivery of small scientific payloads on the lunar surface. The money was not exchanged initially, but the space agency announced that these companies would now be allowed to "bid" for contracts for selected moon-based experiments.
The space agency has made the lunar announcement with considerable fanfare, devoting an hour – long ceremony to the children 's questions, of a Houston astronaut hopping on a wire to simulate the lunar gravity and other activities.
Under the pomp and the circumstances, however, two factors emerged. The first is that the scientific branch of NASA, the Science Mission Directorate, involves more in the financing of lunar scientific experiments through this program. "The moon is full of secrets we do not know yet," said Zurbuchen, head of NASA's science activities. And second, the government is taking concrete steps to fund commercial activities on the moon.
The nine companies that obtained the right to bid on the so-called lunar payload commercial contracts are as follows:
- Astrobotic Technology Inc .: Pittsburgh
- Deep Space Systems: Littleton, Colorado
- Draper: Cambridge, Massachusetts
- Firefly Aerospace Inc .: Cedar Park, Texas
- Intuitive Machines LLC: Houston
- Lockheed Martin Area: Littleton, Colorado
- Masten Space Systems Inc .: Mojave, California
- Moon Express: Cape Canaveral, Florida
- Orbit Beyond: Edison, New Jersey
Most of them are not a surprise, as companies such as Astrobotic, Masten Space Systems and Moon Express have been working for some time to bring small payloads to the moon. Orbit Beyond was a relative surprise, but it turns out that this company is a consortium consisting mostly of familiar entities involved in lunar delivery: TeamIndus, Advanced Space, Honeybee Robotics, Ceres Robotics Inc. and Apollo Fusion.
NASA stated that payload delivery could begin as early as 2019. These contracts are not subject to any time or quantity limits and their combined maximum value is $ 2.6 billion for the next 10 years. The agency said it would consider a number of factors when comparing bids, such as "technical feasibility, price, and schedule."
What does it mean
Under President Trump, NASA has sought to refocus its exploration activities on a first step on the Moon and on test technologies for potential human missions on Mars. However, the space agency also wants to determine what resources on the moon could allow its colonization in the long term, provide the rare metals needed on Earth or possibly rocket fuel for missions elsewhere in the Solar System.
To do this, the agency needs more data on the potential of these resources, particularly water. Earlier this year, NASA canceled a mission, Resource Prospector, which reportedly entered shaded craters permanently near the lunar poles to determine the amount and availability of ice-water there. The agency has positioned these new trade missions as a first step towards this type of prospecting research.
"It's a positive step forward," Clive Neal, a lunar scientist from Notre Dame, told Ars. However, he added, none of these early missions would have the kind of mobile technology needed for mobility to map the resource-rich areas on the lunar surface. According to Neal, NASA officials said the new commercial payload program would eventually reach the resource exploration phase.
The commercial companies involved in Thursday's announcement were naturally excited about the new program. The promise of a guaranteed client for the missions will likely help some of these companies close their business cases and raise additional funds.
"It's on the critical path for any commercial company wanting to provide commercial lunar services," Bob Richards, founder of Moon Express, told Ars. "The necessary capitalization threshold and the nascent market for lunar business customers are beyond the reach of most companies, and certainly most start-ups, so NASA provides an essential pump priming for everything to work."
This is an important moment for some of these companies. Although Google Lunar XPRIZE participants were numerous, no one managed to win this contest and make a soft landing on the moon. Now the price is a contract with NASA. And it is almost time for lunar trading companies to deliver their products.