NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial moon lander partners

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intuitive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device, X-ray imagers, a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields and an advanced moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

NASA signs agreement with Japan to cooperate across Space Station, Artemis and Lunar Gateway projects

NASA has signed a new agreement with Japan that lays out plans for the two nations to cooperate on the International Space Station (continuing existing partnership between the countries there) as well as on NASA’s Artemis program, which includes missions in lunar space and to the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed the agreement with Government of Japan Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda on July 10. It’s a Joint Exploration Decoration of Intent (JEDI), which essentially commits the two countries to laying the groundwork for more concrete plans about how the two nations will work together on projects that will extend all the way to include both robotic and human exploration of the Moon .

Japan was one of the earliest countries to express their intent to participate as an international partner in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, all the way back in October 2019. Since then, a number of countries and agencies have expressed similar support, including Canada, which will contribute by building a third version of its Canadarm, the robotic manipulator that has been used on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the European Space Agency.

This new agreement formalizes that arrangement, and from here you can expect both parties to begin to detail in more specificity what kinds of projects they’ll collaborate on. Japan has plans to launch a robotic space probe mission to the moons of Mars and return samples from Phobos, its largest natural satellite, with a launch schedule for 2024, and it has launched a lunar orbiter exploration spacecraft called SELENE, and is planning a lunar lander mission dubbed the ‘Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) for 2022 that will be its first lunar surface mission.

NASA seeks miniature scientific payload concepts for robotic Moon rover scouts

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is seeking ideas from the public around what kind of scientific equipment they could use to outfit tiny lunar rovers to help with Artemis and other Moon missions. The call, issued via crowdsourcing platform HeroX and called ‘Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload’ in a very contemporary nod to a movie that came out 31 years ago, seeks payloads with maximum dimensions of no more than 4″ x 2″, or “similar in size to a new bar of soap.”

Why the need for instruments so small? NASA wants to be able to perform the kind of science that has, in the past, required large launch vehicles, large orbiters and large launch vehicles, but with much greater frequency and at much lower costs than has been possible before. In order to pave the way for long-term lunar human presence and eventual habitation, NASA says it needs “practical and affordable ways to use lunar resources,” in order to defray the costs of resupply missions – already an expensive undertaking when just traveling to the International Space Station in Earth’s orbit, and astronomically more so when going as far afield as the Moon .

The goal is for these to be pretty much immediately available for service, with the hope that they can be shipped out to the Moon over the course of the next one to four years. JPL is looking to tap the expertise and experience of the global community to see what’s possible with existing materials and technologies, and while this idea challenge is primarily about concept phase designs (with $160,000 in prize money payouts available), the longer-term goal is to use it as a jumping off point for a pipeline of actual tech that will be incorporated into future rovers and sent on lunar missions.

Taking part in the challenge is fairly easy, and you actually retain all rights to anything you submit in terms of IP, with the proviso that if you make it to the finals, you have to sign a new agreement in which you also grant the U.S. government essentially a perpetual, royalty-free license to use your creation in whatever way they deem appropriate.

If you think you’ve got an idea about how to miniaturize environmental sensors and data gathering equipment for use on what amounts to a space Roomba, there’s probably no better opportunity to contribute to NASA’s deep space exploration efforts – short of landing a JPL gig, which might happen if your idea is good enough.

Trump said to propose roughly $3 billion NASA budget boost for 2021

President Donald Trump is set to request a budget of $25.6 billion for NASA for its fiscal 2021 operating year, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. It’s looking for nearly $3 billion more than the $22.6 billion NASA had for its current fiscal year, and the bulk of the new funding is said to be earmarked for development of new human lunar landers.

This represents one of the single largest proposed budget increases for NASA in a couple of decades, but reflects Trump’s renewed commitment to the agency’s efforts as expressed during the State of the Union address he presented on February 4, during which he included a request to Congress to “fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has frequently repeated the agency’s goal of sending the first American woman and the next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024, a timeline the current mission cadence of the Artemis program is designed against. Bridenstine has previously discussed esimated total costs for getting back to the Moon by 2024 at between $20-30 billion, and the Administrator was pressed by a House Appropriations Subcommittee late last year about a $1.6 billion late-stage add-on request for the agency’s fiscal 2020 budget.

The WSJ also reports that NASA will be looking to solicit bids on lunar landers as part of its 2021 budgetary plans, which echoes its previous efforts with the launch vehicles for the Artemis program. Already, NASA is working with a host of commercial partners on an authorized vendor list for robotic, uncrewed lunar lander mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the lunar surface starting in 2021.

NASA released a broad agency announcement for industry comment regarding a human lander system for Artemis last July, along with a revised version in August, and then opened a call for formal proposals in September 2019. A couple of winners for a human-rated lander to carry NASA astronauts are expected, with the agency saying that the time that the first company to complete its lander will provide the vehicle for the 2024 landing, while the second will support another mission in 2025. with potential competitors vying for the prize including legacy companies like Boeing, as well as newer entrants like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Trump is set to submit his administration’s budget on February 10.

NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply

Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

I’ve asked for a bit more information on the possibilities of science instruments onboard, and what the alternatives might be should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage. But even if that were to be the case, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”

Legged lunar rover startup Spacebit taps Latin American partners for Moon mission

UK-based lunar rover startup Spacebit, a company developing robotic exploration hardware for use on the Moon, announced two new partners that will help it develop and finalize its technology ahead of its target mission date of 2021. The Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency (EXA) and Mexico’s Dereum will be providing the technology that Spacebit will employ on both its deployer and the robot rover it’s preparing for use on the Moon.

This marks the first time that Latin American companies will participate in a mission to the lunar surface, and Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk was joined by Dereum CEO Carlos Mariscal and EXA COO Ronnie Nader to talk about the news at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C.

“We have Ecuador, and Mexico as our technical partners,” Tanasyuk said. “So in addition to this being the first lunar mission from the UK, it also is the first Latin American mission with a consortium of Latin American countries participating along with the UK.”

Both the EXA and Dereum have strong technical chops when it comes to spacecraft and space-based robotics, with the EXA sousing on developing technology that is “efficient, cheap and reliable,” according to Nader, while Dereum’s Mariscal said that his organization is well-known globally for its work on building robots for use in space, with an extensive track record. Their expertise should help a lot in Spacebit’s efforts to build, test and validate its robotic lunar rover, which employs a novel walking system for getting around, whereas all rovers to date have used wheels for transportation.

Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk

Spacebit CEO Pavlo Tanasyuk

“We are planning on doing a swarm technology exploration plan, where we have multiple small spider walking rovers deployed from a wheeled mothership, along with being able to have some redundancy and the ability to do 3D LIDAR scanning of the interior  lunar caves and lava tubes,” Tanasyuk said.

“It’s essentially a data as a service business model,” he added, explaining how they’ll seek to monetize the business. “Our primary focus for early missions are to do exploration and mapping of lunar lava tubes to be able to characterize the lunar subsurface environment for potential suitability for future human habitation.”

Spacebit, founded in 2014, is funded privately via Tanasyuk himself, along with a couple of other private investors. He said that his company is fully funded through its first mission, a berth aboard the Peregrine Moon lander being launched by Astrobotic in 2021 (which itself has a price tag of $1.7 million he said). The first mission won’t be an entire swarm, but a single rover sent up as a demonstration unit to prove out its technology.

NASA’s Jim Bridenstine says 2035 is doable for human landing on Mars – provided budget is there

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took part in a joint presentation by the chiefs of a number of International space agencies at the annual International Astronautical Conference on Monday. At the end of the event, A question was put to the entire group – when do we get to Mars?

After a joke answer of “Tuesday” by ESA Director General Jan Wörner, Bridenstine followed with a serious answer that he believes – provided everyone can get their governments to actually back them and provided the support needed – it’s possible that astronauts could land on Mars by as early as 2035.

“If we accelerate the Moon landing, we’re accelerating the Mars landing – that’s what we’re doing,” Bridenstine said, referring to the agency’s aggressive, accelerated timeline of aiming to land the first American woman and next American man on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program.

“If our budgets were sufficient,” Bridenstine said, turning to his colleagues from NASA’s International equivalents, “I would suggest that we could do it by 2035.”

“The goal is to land on the Moon within 5 years and be sustainable by 2028,” Bridenstine said during a press conference following the agency leadership panel, clarifying that sustainability means “people living and working on another world for long periods of time.”

The caveat Bridenstine offered, that budgets match ambition, is not an insignificant one. NASA just faced a congressional subcommittee budgetary hearing about its plan to get to the Moon by 2024, and faced some heavy skepticism. From NASA’s scientific and technical assessment of Mars mission feasibility for a 2035 target, however, the agency previously discussed this date as early as 2015.

Japan will participate in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project for the Artemis program

Japan has officially announced that it will participate with NASA’s Lunar Gateway project (via NHK), which will seek to establish an orbital research and staging station around the Moon. The Lunar Gateway is a key component of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first American woman and the next American man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Japan’s involvement was confirmed on Friday at a meeting of the country’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy, at which Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was present. The governing body accepted a recommendation from a panel established to study the possibility that Japan should indeed join NASA’s efforts.

Working with NASA on its Lunar Gateway will serve to benefit Japan in a few ways, the panel determined, including by boosting its profile as a technology leader and by strengthening U.S.-Japan relations when it comes to ensuring space is a place where international collaboration on peaceful ventures and research can take place.

Further details about how Japan will participate aren’t yet available, which makes sense given this decision has only just been made. Japanese lunar exploration startup ispace welcomed the news, and anticipates possibly being able to contribute in some capacity, specifically via the partnership it announced with Draper earlier this year.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” said Takeshi Hakamada, Founder & CEO of ispace in an emailed statement. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the US-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

Scientists propose ‘Spaceline’ elevator to the Moon

Fans of sci-fi and fringe tech may already be familiar with the idea of the “space elevator,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — and totally impossible with today’s technology. But a pair of scientists think they’ve found an alternative: a Moon elevator. And it’s slightly less insane… technically.

The idea of the space elevator, first explored in detail by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel “The Fountains of Paradise,” is essentially a tower so tall it reaches space. Instead of launching ships and materials from the surface of the Earth to orbit, you just put them in the elevator of this tower and when they reach the top, somewhere about 26,000 miles up in geosynchronous orbit, they’re already beyond gravity’s pull, for all intents and purposes.

It’s a fun idea, but the simple fact is that this tower would need to be so strong to support its own weight, and that of the counterweight at the far end, that no known material or even reasonably hypothetical one will do it. Not by a long shot. So the space elevator has remained well on the “fiction” side of science fiction since its first proposal. Hasn’t stopped people from patenting it, though.

But what if I told you that we could make a space elevator even bigger, with materials available today? You’d say I am completely unqualified to engineer such a structure — and you’d be right. But two astronomers from Cambridge and Columbia Universities think they’ve got an alternative. They call it the Spaceline.

The secret is in abandoning the entire concept of anchoring the space elevator to the surface of the Earth. Instead they propose a tower or cable extending the other direction: From the surface of the Moon to geosynchronous orbit around the planet.

Unsurprisingly, this idea has been put out there before, as early as the ’70s. But as Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford put it in their paper:

We present the derivations herein as a full standalone mathematical and physical description of the concept, one that we and authors before us have been surprised to find is eminently plausible and may have been overlooked as a major step in the development of our capacity as a species to move within our solar system.


Math by Cambridge and Columbia. Diagram by MS Paint.

In other words, others have suggested it before, but they did the math. And it actually works out. And it might only cost a few billion dollars.

The Spaceline would be more like a skyhook than a tower. A thin, strong piece of material (think the width of a pencil lead) that extends about 225,000 miles from the surface of the Moon to a safe distance above the planet, where it won’t interfere with satellites or encounter our pesky atmosphere.

Anyone interested in going to the Moon would simply launch to the correct orbit height and sync up with the tip of the Spaceline, where there would no doubt be a station of some kind. From there they could use solar-powered propulsion to zip along the line, no fuel required. At the other end, they simply slow down and have a soft landing at lunar orbit or whatever surface facility we put on the regolith there.

Importantly, the Spaceline would pass through the Earth-Moon Lagrange point, where there is effectively zero gravity and no other physical interference, making construction and storage a snap.

Having only a small team of scientists and engineers at such a base camp would allow hand construction and maintenance of a new generation of space based experiments – one could imagine telescopes, particle accelerators, gravitational wave detectors, vivariums, power generation and launch points for missions to the rest of the solar system.

Sounds nicer than the tiny Lunar Gateway NASA has planned.

While the researchers say this is “not idle theorycrafting,” it most certainly is, with the caveat that the theory is more realistic than a famously unrealistic one no one takes seriously. Still, the possibility is tantalizing now that someone has crunched the numbers. Perhaps one of these space-bound billionaires will make a Moon elevator their next passion project.

Hold the first Moon rock ever collected with your smartphone

NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in a variety of ways today, but here’s one you can experience no matter where you are, provided you have a modern smartphone. NASA’s Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science (ARES) department has released a fully detailed model of the first ever sample of lunar soil and rock, bagged by Astronaut Neil Armstrong during humanity’s first-ever trip to the Moon’s surface.

The rock is fully manipulable provided you visit this link on a smartphone with the capability to display interactive 3D field on the web, so you can twist and turn it using touch to get a better look. It has an incredible level of detail, (“research-grade,” in fact, according to ARES, and is part of a larger effort to make more of the organization’s larger library of lunar and antarctic meteroite samples available to more people, both for research and for education.

3d models verticalThese 3D models are created using extremely high resolution photography that captures high megapixel images of the actual samples from 240 different angles, which can offer resolution as detailed as just 30 to 60 microns (doubt the width of a human hair).

But that’s just a start – software uses computer vision to ensure the 3D image provides accurate volume and text true information, and a process that involves the use of X-rays to get a cross-section image without actually slicing up the samples is also employed to ensure fully accurate representation.

If somehow you don’t have a smartphone but you do have those basic red/blue 3D glasses, then you can also view the image below in eye-popping detail. Meanwhile, NASA’s also opening up its lab of Moon rock samples to geologists for the first time, so they can study them directly in person, after years of keeping them under strict lock and key.