WASHINGTON – NASA has awarded more than $ 400 million in contracts to demonstrate the technology needed for future lunar exploration and to send a payload of ice drilling to the moon’s south pole.
NASA announced on October 16 that it had awarded a $ 47 million task to Intuitive Machines, one of 14 companies in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, to deliver the payload Experiment for Polar Ice Digging Experiment 1 ( PRIME-1) at the south pole of the moon until the end of 2022.
PRIME-1 is a 40-kilogram payload designed to search for water ice at a depth of up to one meter below the lunar surface. It will test a near-infrared spectrometer, mass spectrometer and drill that NASA plans to complete with the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission in 2023.
“We are building our capabilities to use in-situ resources using the resources of the moon,”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein, speaking earlier at the same meeting, also discussed the importance of PRIME-1 and VIPER. “These missions are crucial to help us understand where we need to go so we can get the best estimate of these volatiles,” he said, which could help the agency identify a promising landing site for future missions of Artemis with crew.
This mission will be the second for CLPS Intuitive Machines. It received in May 2019 one of the first CLPS orders for a mission scheduled to launch in late 2021. Astrobotic also received one of these first orders, as well as one in June for the VIPER mission. Masten Space Systems won a CLPS contract in April for a mission in the moon’s southern polar regions.
The announcement of the launch of PRIME-1 came two days after NASA allocated a much larger amount of money for lunar surface technology. The 15 awards for 14 companies made through the agency’s Tipping Point program are designed to advance technologies that are approaching maturity, which could support the later, “sustainable” phase of the Artemis program.
“NASA believes that this type of company and the capabilities it has developed will be transformative of the way we explore space,” Bridenstein said at the consortium meeting, where she announced the Tipping Point Awards. “But we also believe it will take a little pressure from NASA.”
Of the $ 372.2 million in Tipping Point contracts, $ 256.1 million will go to four companies working on demonstrations of cryogenic fluid management technologies: Eta Space, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance. All four companies plan to conduct space demonstrations of technologies for storing and transporting fuels such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
“When we fly in space, we have to tell cryogenic liquids for long periods of time,” Bridenstein said. “How can we control cryogenic liquids so that we can perform space flights in ways we might not otherwise do?”
Eta Space will use its $ 27 million prize to fly a small satellite called LOXSAT 1 to test liquid oxygen storage technology. Eta Space is working with Rocket Lab, which will provide the Photon LOXSAT 1 satellite bus and launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.
Lockheed Martin won a $ 89.7 million award for testing liquid hydrogen storage technology on a small satellite. The company is working with Momentus, which will host the payload of the Vigoride and Relativity Space orbiter, which will launch the vehicle on its Terran 1 rocket in October 2023.
SpaceX, which is already working with NASA to study cryogenic fluid management technologies, earned $ 53.2 million to demonstrate the transfer of 10 tons of liquid oxygen between the tanks of a Starship vehicle into orbit. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, when asked about orbital refueling at a conference on the Mars Society on October 16, said, “We did this in the 22nd.”
The United Launch Alliance will use its $ 86.2 million prize to demonstrate an “intelligent-powered cryogenic system” using the Centaur upper stage of its new Vulcan rocket. This demonstration includes testing the transfer of fuel from tank to tank and “multi-week” storage.
The rest of Tipping Point’s funding went to 10 companies to demonstrate a range of technologies needed to land and operate on the lunar surface. Masten Space Systems won two contracts totaling $ 12.8 million to demonstrate precision landing technology with its Xogdor car and a payload heat and power system to allow them to survive the moonlit night.
Other awards, ranging from $ 2.4 million to $ 41.6 million, cover technologies such as energy systems, lunar regolith oxygen retrieval payload and robotic arm. Nokia won a $ 14.1 million award for developing lunar communication systems using 4G wireless networks.
Intuitive Machines won the largest of the awards for developing a “bunker” that can carry a one-kilogram payload of up to 2.5 kilometers on the lunar surface. “This will give us high-resolution mapping of perhaps volatile substances on the moon’s surface,” Bridenstein said. “This will help us understand how to determine very precise landing sites on the moon’s surface.”