NASA adds SpaceX, Blue Origin and more to list of companies set to make deliveries to the surface of the Moon

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.

Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

Stingray-inspired spacecraft could eventually probe the atmosphere of Venus

NASA’s next Venus probe could be an atmosphere-skimming robotic stingray designed by the University of Buffalo. UB’s CRASH Lab, which is the institution’s Crashworthinesss for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids laboratory, has been selected by NASA to get early stage funding as part of a program the agency devised to come up with new and innovative concept designs.

The stringray-style spacecraft design would have ‘wings’ that can flap in the high winds of the upper atmosphere of Venus, according to UB, which would allow controlled flight that’s possible with high efficiency. Using this design, the BREEZE design (as it’s called) would be able to make its way all the way around Venus every four to six days, while powering itself back up every two to three days while spending time on the sun-illuminated side of the planet.

Each ‘day’ on Venus is longer than a year on Earth, because of the way it orbits the Sun. That means that typical spacecraft design wouldn’t necessarily be able to stay afloat and powered in the planet’s atmosphere using existing strategies for propulsion and mobility.

BREEZE is still a long way away from actually dipping in and out of Venusian clouds, but this acknowledgment and award from NASA means it’s one step closer along the path to development.

SpaceX achieves key milestone in safety testing of Crew Dragon spacecraft

SpaceX has managed to run 13 successful parachute tests in a row of the third major revision of the parachute system it’s planning to use for its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The most recent test, which SpaceX shared a shorted edited video clip of on Twitter, involved using the system with one of the parachutes intentionally not deploying, to prove that it can land the crew craft safely even in case of a partial failure.

This is a big step for SpaceX’s plan to launch NASA astronauts aboard Crew Dragon. Last month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk held a press conference to discuss their progress on the commercial crew program. At that event, Musk said that he felt SpaceX was aiming to do “at least” 10 successful tests of its revised ‘Mark 3’ parachute system in a row before any astronauts fly with the system in use.

“We certainly want to get […] at least on the order of 10 successful tests in a row before, before launching astronauts,” Musk said at the time. “So that seems like where the the behavior of the parachutes is consistent, is across 10 successful tests.”

At the time, Musk added that they were anticipating get to at least 10 successful test prior to the end of the year, so managing 13 definitely fits with that schedule, and in fact seems to be a rare occasion where SpaceX is actually ahead of the often optimistic timelines that Musk sets as targets.

This third generation of parachute being used for Crew Dragon uses Zylon in place of nylon, which is a polymer material originally developed by SRI and that provides the lines used in the parachute around three times the strength of nylon. SpaceX also updated the stitching pattern to optimize the load balance on the new parachutes.

Next up for SpaceX is a launch aboard test that should happen as early as this coming week. SpaceX’s test will be a ground-baed test filing of the Crew Dragon’s abort engines, which is set to happen as early as Wednesday. After that, it’s still hoping to get an in-flight abort test done before year’ send, which will show how the Crew Dragon can jettison from a Falcon 9 rocket after lift-off in case of emergency.

Both NASA and SpaceX have expressed optimism about getting an actual crewed flight off the ground early next year, provided everything else in terms of testing requirements goes smoothly between now and then.

NASA’s VIPER lunar rover will hunt water on the Moon in 2022

NASA is looking for liquid gold on the Moon — not oil, but plain-old water. If we’re going to have a permanent presence there, we’ll need it, so learning as much as we can about it is crucial. That’s why the agency is sending a rover called VIPER to the Moon’s south pole — its first long-term surface mission since 1972.

VIPER, or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will touch down in December 2022 if all goes according to plan. Its mission: directly observe and quantify the presence of water in the permanently shadowed polar regions.

These perennially dark areas of the Moon have been collecting water ice for millions of years, since there’s no sunlight to melt or vaporize it. NASA already confirmed the presence of water ice by crashing a probe into the general area, but that’s a bit crude, isn’t it? Better to send a robot in to take some precise measurements.

VIPER will be about the size of a golf cart, and will be equipped with what amounts to prospecting gear. Its Neutron Spectrometer System (mentioned yesterday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine ahead of this announcement) will let the rover detect water beneath the surface.

When it’s over a water deposit, VIPER will deploy… The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or TRIDENT. Definitely the best acronym I’ve encountered this week. TRIDENT is a meter-long drill that will bring up samples for analysis by the rover’s two other instruments, a pair of spectrometers that will evaluate the contents of the soil.

By doing this systematically over a large area, the team hopes to create a map of water deposits below the surface that can be analyzed for larger patterns — perhaps leading to a more systematic understanding of our favorite substance’s presence on the Moon.

waterhunt

A visualization of Moon-based water ice under the surface being mapped by the VIPER rover

The rover is currently in development, as you can see from the pictures at the top — the right image is its “mobility testbed,” which as you might guess lets the team test out how it will get around.

VIPER is a limited-time mission; operating at the poles means there’s no sunlight to harvest with solar panels, so the rover will carry all the power it needs to last about a hundred days there. That’s longer than the U.S. has spent on the Moon’s surface in a long time — although China has for the last few years been actively deploying rovers all over the place.

Interestingly, the rover is planned for deployment via a Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract, meaning one of these companies may be building the lander that takes it from orbit to the surface. Expect to hear more as we get closer to launch.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover rests on its own six wheels for the first time

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will have to operate on its own in a harsh environment, hundred of millions of miles from the nearest mechanic. But for now, it’s still in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab – and every milestone is an important one. Including supporting its own weight, fully assembled and resting on its own six wheels, which is what the rover managed this week.

This stand-up test is one of many the rover is undergoing, including testing its nuclear-powered engine, its ability to move its wheels, its sensor arrays and navigation systems. The six-wheeled robotic exploration platform is readying for its scheduled July 2020 launch, which will see it sent to the Red Planet to carry on and augment the mission of the Mars Curiosity rover.

Mars2020 rover 2

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover. Credit: NASA

Curiosity launched in 2011, and landed on Mars in August of 2012. This earlier rover was designed for a two-year mission, but it got an indefinite mission extension in 2012, and it’s still operational after switching computers earlier this year following a crash – a full seven years after its original landing.

The Mars 2020 rover has received a number of upgrades vs. Curiosity, which you’d probably expect given that the team developing the newer rover has the benefit of multiple years of experience running a robotic rover platform on the surface of Mars. Mars 2020 features upgrades like improved environmental durability, and it’ll carry a host of different scientific and research equipment to complement Curiosity’s capabilities.

SpaceX wants to land Starship on the Moon before 2022, then do cargo runs for 2024 human landing

Speaking at a quick series of interviews with commercial space company’s at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell shed a little more light on her company’s current thinking with regards to the mission timelines for its forthcoming Starship spacefaring vehicle. Starship, currently in parallel development at SpaceX’s South Texas and Florida facilities, is intended to be an all-purpose successor to, and replacement for, both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, with a higher payload capacity and the ability to reach the Moon and eventually Mars.

“Aspirationally, we want to get Starship to orbit within a year,” Shotwell said. “We definitely want to land it on the Moon before 2022. We want to […] stage cargo there to make sure that there are resources for the folks that ultimately land on the moon by 2024, if things go well, so that’s the aspirational timeframe.”

That’s an ambitious timeline, and as Shotwell herself repeatedly stated, these are “aspirational” timelines. In the space industry, as well as in tech, it’s not uncommon for leadership to set aggressive schedules in order to drive the teams working on projects to work at the limits of what’s actually possible. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is also known for working to timelines that often don’t match up with reality, and Shotwell alluded to Musk’s ambitious goal setting as a virtue in another part of her on-stage interview at IAC.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell at IAC 2019

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell at IAC 2019 in Washington, D.C.

“Elon puts out these incredibly audacious goals and people say ‘You’re not going to do it, you’ll never get to orbit, you’ll never get a real rocket to orbit, […] you’ll never get Heavy to orbit, you’ll never get Dragon to the station, you’ll never get Dragon back, and you’ll never land a rocket,'” she said. “So, frankly, I love when people say we can’t do it, because it motivates my fantastic 6,500 employees to go do that thing.”

SpaceX has previously discussed its goal of starting its first orbital test flights of Starship within as little as a year. So far, the company has built and tested a so-called ‘Starhopper’ demonstration vehicle, which consisted of just the base of the vehicle and one of the Raptor engines it will use for its new Starship launch system and Super Heavy booster. After completing successful low-altitude flights with that vehicle, SpaceX moved on to assembling its Mk1 and Mk2 Starship test vehicles, which represent the full scale of the ultimate orbital spacecraft, and which are being built by teams in Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral, respectively. These will perform high-altitude testing, before SpaceX builds additional prototypes for orbital, and ultimately human test flights.

SpaceX already has already been contracted by Intuitive Machines and ispace, both companies working with NASA to delivery payloads to the Moon ahead of its 2024 Artemis program human Moon landing, but these payload missions all specify using Falcon 9 to deliver their payloads.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explains how startups can help with Artemis Moon missions

At this week’s International Astronautical Congress, where the space industry, international space agencies and researchers from around the world convene to discuss the state of space technology and business, I asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about what role he sees for startups in contributing to his agency’s ambitious Artemis program. Artemis, named after Apollo’s twin sister Artemis, one the gods of Greek myth, is NASA’s mission to return human beings to the surface of the Moon – this time to stay – and to use that as a staging ground for further exploration to Mars and beyond.

Bridenstine, fielding the question during a press Q+A about Artemis, said that the program is incredibly welcoming of contributions from startups large and small, and that it sees a number of different areas where contributions from younger space companies can have a big impact.

“When we talk about entrepreneurs, there are big entrepreneurs and there are small entrepreneurs, but know this: What we’re building it the [Lunar] Gateway is open architecture, and we want to go with commercial partners,” Bridenstine said. “So there are in fact, a number of companies here [at IAC], big companies that have said they want to go to the Moon, they want to go sustainably, they want to be part of Artemis, and the Gateway is available to them.”

gateway orion approaching 1

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Gateway with the Orion capsule approaching to dock.

The Lunar Gateway is a station NASA intends to put in orbit around the Moon to act as a staging ground for its vehicles, a key step to ensure the process of landing things on the Moon once they reach lunar orbit is more easily accomplished. Bridenstine pointed out that in the Broad Agency Agreement (BAA) that NASA originally put out for the Artemis program, it went further still and said that it welcomed proposals from private space companies that involve going directly to the Moon, bypassing the Gateway entirely .

Actually getting to the Moon has been taken on by some of the deeper-pocketed and more well-established entrepreneurs among the so-called ‘New Space’ companies, including SpaceX . But Artemis participation goes well beyond the high-priced task of building vehicles capable of getting from Earth to lunar orbit, according to Bridenstine.

“We’re going to need cargo on the surface of the Moon,” he said, noting that the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule Artemis will use to take humans to the Moon in 2024 will lean on advance payloads to better ensure mission success. “[W]hen we talk about aggregating a lander at the gateway – when we talk about, maybe even putting hardware on the surface the Moon, including science hardware, like the Viper neutron spectrometer, an IR spectrometer helping us understand the regolith and the water ice, what’s there on the surface of the Moon, where it is and in what quantities […] we’re going to need those science instruments delivered to the surface of the Moon.”

Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander.

Indeed, there are companies poised to deliver cargo via lunar landers in advance of, or in time with, NASA’s 2024 target for a human landing, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon lander, which is looking to launch in 2021, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander. Both these landers, and the payloads they carry, could include startup-designed equipment and systems to pave the way for sustainable human occupation of our large natural satellite. In fact, Bridenstine suggested some potential payloads that could be even more wild than advance data-gathering hardware.

“Maybe even – again it depends on budgets, and I’m not promising anything between now and 2024 – but maybe even an inflatable habitat on the surface of the moon so that when our astronauts get there they have a place to go, and they can stay for longer periods of time,” he said. “Is that in the realm of possibility? Absolutely.”

Bridenstine continued that the agency is already working with many smaller, entrepreneurial businesses, and intends to continue exploring partnerships with more. There’s a clear and growing need for lunar cargo from NAA, in increasing volumes, the Administrator pointed out.

“On top of SLS and Orion we need additional capability, there are opportunities there for all kinds of commercial companies entrepreneurs,” he said. “We also have small business investment and research that NASA is involved in, and we’re on-ramping small businesses all the time. In fact, right now we have the Commercial Lunar Payload Services [CLPS] program underway. We have nine companies that have signed up […] two of them now have task orders to deliver to the Moon in 2021 […] We’re on-ramping, not only those nine companies, but we want to on ramp additional companies, and maybe even bigger companies for larger landing opportunities because like I said, we’re going to have a lot more needs in the future for cargo on the surface of the Moon.”

Jeff Bezos announces Blue Origin will form new industry team to return to the Moon

At the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. today, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced a new “national team” that will join forces in order to help return humans to the Moon via NASA’s Artemis program. They’ll focus on developing the Human Landing System that will be used to achieve this goal.

Blue Origin will serve as lead contractor for this new industry collaboration, which will also include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The partnership will serve to pursue NASA’s stated mission of getting the first American woman and next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Each partner in this new alliance will take on specific roles pertaining to helping NASA achieve its goal. Blue Origin is going to be acting as the primary contractor and lead the program management of the partner involvement, as well as take on systems engineering, and responsibilities for safety and mission assurance. They’ll also provide the descent element of the overall the human landing system, which will consist of the Blue Moon lander and the BE-7 engine that will provide its propulsion.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin will be developing the ‘Ascent Element’ vehicle and Northrop Grumman is building the ‘Transfer Element’ to get the whole landing element Blue Origin is providing in place towards the Moon. Longtime space industry non-profit Draper will lead the descent guidance efforts and produce flight avionics.

“Northrop Grumman built the original lander that now delivers cargo to ISS,” Bezos said during an award ceremony at the IAC where he made the announcement. “Lockheed Martin is, as far as I know, the only company that actually lands on the surface of Mars. They are unbelievably competent in space. They are experts in life support systems […] and Draper is doing the guidance and control – an incredibly complex job for landing on the Moon, especially when you want to do a precision landing. And of course they did that for the original Apollo Program way back then, but today it will be done in a completely new way.”

 

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.